WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Friday that President Bush was responsible for a "precipitous drop'' in America's international stature and for an economy falling apart.
Democrats will emphasize the country's weakened economy in the two weeks leading up to the elections for control of Congress, Daschle said.
"It's too bad that the promise of the new administration wasn't realized,'' the South Dakota Democrat said in a harsh appraisal of Bush's first two years in office. "You've got an economy that is in shambles as a result of decisions made by this administration, you have virtually no attention to domestic issues, you have a far greater and more poisoned political environment than we had two years ago.''
Daschle spoke to reporters a day after Congress recessed for the elections following a year of partisan animosity and failure to pass several top priority measures, including a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens and a new Homeland Security Department.
The office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., put out a statement Friday saying the "partisan incompetence'' of Senate leaders had made deal making impossible and resulted in the breakdown in the system.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Thursday the lawmakers were leaving Washington with much unfinished business because "the Senate Democratic leadership has failed.''
Daschle, a potential contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, said Bush "came to Washington promising to change the tone, and he did: It's worse. He promised compassionate conservatism and the only thing we've seen is compassion for conservatives.''
In international affairs, Daschle said Bush has only recently realized that unilateralism wasn't working. "I don't know if we have ever seen a more precipitous drop in international stature and public opinion with regard to this country as we have the last two years.''
He said that while Americans "like the president personally they are becoming increasingly concerned about the direction he is taking the country.''
With control of both the House and Senate in the balance in the Nov. 5 elections, Daschle said Democrats would focus on the economy under the Bush administration's watch, with trillions lost in the stock market, personal pension funds shrinking, unemployment up and administration officials continuing to insist that the economy is on the rebound.
"I can't find a success story in this administration to date, and I think that is something that this administration is going to have to explain, not only in the next two weeks but in the next two years,'' he said.
Daschle said the Democrats' chances of holding their one-seat majority in the Senate were "slightly better than 50-50.'' He said four Senate seats now held by Democrats — in Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Georgia — were up for grabs as were four Republican-held seats in Colorado, New Hampshire, Texas and Arkansas. Democratic candidates, he said, were within striking distance in the North and South Carolina seats being vacated by Republicans Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.
He said he would spend about half his time before the election in his home state of South Dakota, where Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is locked in a tight battle with Rep. John Thune.
Daschle said that if Democrats retain control of the Senate, he will initiate short-term economic steps such as raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, providing financial relief to the states and acting on targeted business incentives.
He said Democrats would block Republican attempts to make permanent the $1.3 trillion tax cut that Congress passed last year and Democrats say is a major reason for the return of federal deficits. But Democrats would not try to repeal the tax plan, he said.
"We're sort of at a balance here,'' he said. "Can we repeal it? No. Can we stop it from getting worse? Yes.''