WASHINGTON – Before trading places as majority and minority leader next year, Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota traded parting shots with Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, each blaming the other for what Congress did not get done this year.
"I'm going to give you everything I got on the last day as majority leader," Daschle said Wednesday, pointing to a poster of unfinished business. "Obviously, there was a lot of work left on the table in large measure because the far right chose not to allow it to be enacted."
Daschle pointed to the failure to extend unemployment insurance, to pass prescription drug coverage, to get increases in the minimum wage, to preserve pensions, to enact bankruptcy reform and to complete an energy bill among other issues.
He did single out several measures that he said he was pleased to see completed, including a response to terrorist attacks, unemployment and economic stimulus plans, campaign finance reform, education reform, election reform and a number of environmental and trade issues.
Lott said he doesn't know how the Senate majority leader could blame Republicans for the failure to pass several bills, when it's up to Daschle to make sure they come to a vote.
"I don't see how they can say that it's our fault when after all, Daschle and the Democrats have been in charge. When you're in charge — and I have been there — you get the blame when you don't produce. And they haven't produced."
Lott used a report card, giving Daschle "F" grades for not passing a budget, spending bills, energy legislation, a prescription drug benefit, welfare and pension reform.
He added that voters did not look at the gridlock in the Senate as a Republican election-year ploy, as Daschle had suggested.
"The proof is here. The bills were not passed and the American people gave us the majority back," he said.
Daschle acknowledged that his party did not communicate a clear message to voters this year and suggested that Democrats need to find an equivalent to the conservative talk radio that the GOP uses to push its ideas.
"We were just talking with some experts a couple of days ago about how, if we're going to try to break through as Democrats, we have to have the same edge that Republicans do," he said.
Then the Democratic leader singled out popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh and suggested that conservative media can incite violent sentiment, some of which has been targeted at him.
"What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren't satisfied just to listen. They want to act because they get emotionally invested. And so the threats to us in public life go up dramatically," he said.
"You know, we see it in foreign countries and we think, 'Well, my God, how can this religious fundamentalism become so violent?' Well, it's that same shrill rhetoric, it's that same shrill power that motivates. Somebody says something and then it becomes a little more shrill the next time. And then more shrill the next time. And pretty soon it's a foment that becomes physical in addition to just verbal. And that's happening in this country," Daschle added.
Those comments brought skepticism from Lott, who tried to brush them off.
"Look, they just lost the election. He's going to be in the minority. I went through it, but you have to take that with a certain amount of grace and dignity."
One liberal media source said Daschle's stress levels were behind the accusatory talk.
"Well I think you have to understand Tom Daschle is very frustrated right now," said Michael Crowley, a congressional correspondent for The New Republic. "He lost the Senate majority, and he took a lot of abuse over the last couple years. I think as a political matter, singling out Rush Limbaugh and complaining about conservative media may not have been the smartest response on his part. But you have to understand this is a guy who had an anthrax letter mailed to him, who had to have personal security, who did get a lot of death threats. And it's not impossible to understand his frustration."
The Senate finished up its lame duck session on Wednesday. The new Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 7, with Daschle in the minority and Lott in the position to take the heat if many of those issues are not passed in time for the 2004 election.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.