WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (search) bade a poignant farewell Friday to a career in Congress, a soft-spoken appeal for "the politics of common ground" after a historic re-election defeat engineered by Republicans casting him as a relentless obstructionist.
"The politics of common ground will not be found on the far right or on the far left. That is not where most Americans live," said the South Dakotan, the first Senate leader of either party to lose a race for re-election in more than a half-century.
"We will only find it in the firm middle ground based on common sense and shared values," he said, in a speech that scarcely referred to the pitched legislative battles over taxes, Medicare (search), health care, court appointments and more that he and Republicans have waged.
The Democratic side of the chamber was nearly full, the Republican half almost empty as Daschle marked the end of a tumultuous decade as party leader. The galleries were crowded and spectators looked down on the remarkable scene of senators lining up to embrace their leader, one by one, after he spoke.
Daschle is one of nine senators whose careers are ending this year, and the tradition of a farewell address well-established. Often they blend a look at past accomplishments with a summons to complete unfinished business and spice it with humor.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (search), D-S.C., retiring after 38 years in the Senate, poked fun at his unusual Low Country drawl in his farewell speech on Wednesday. He said the institution was in better shape than when he arrived in at least one respect.
"We've got a way better group of senators," he said. "We had ... five drunks or six drunks when I came here. There's nobody drunk in the United States Senate. We don't have time to be drunk."
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Ok., closing out 24 conservative years in the Senate, recited with pride a series of tax cuts that have taken effect. "The maximum tax rate was 70 percent" when he was first elected in 1980, he said. "Eight years later it was 28 percent. I'm still amazed. It took a lot of strong leadership and work."
Daschle's stature made his departure different, as did the fact that he was the only senator defeated for re-election this year.
Elected to the Senate in 1986, he was chosen leader by a one-vote margin in 1994, and spent most of his time commanding a party that was in the minority. There were two exceptions — the first a 17-day period after the 2000 election when the Senate was divided 50-50 and Al Gore was vice president.
Later that spring, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont abandoned the GOP and became an independent, making Daschle the majority leader and the country's most prominent Democrat. As such, he was hustled off to an undisclosed location when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, and it was his office that was hit by anthrax later that year.
"I'm proud of those times in this body when we showed our very best. I'm proud of that moment on the Capitol steps when we joined hands and sang," Daschle said. "I'm proud of the effort we made after 9-11 to come together to pass legislation that our country so desperately needed, not just for what it said but for the message it sent."
Daschle lost his bid for a fourth term earlier this month after a multi-million-dollar battle with Sen.-elect John Thune.
The race was the marquee congressional campaign of the year, and Republican determination to topple Daschle was such that Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee broke precedent by going to South Dakota to campaign for the defeat of his counterpart.