Washington Prowler

Deals and Squeals

Tom Daschle plays nice. J.C. Watts gets huffy. John Edwards is corn prone.

By 6.18.02

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BIG DEAL
It appears that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has reached some sort of agreement with the White House on political appointments confirmable by his side of Congress. Some appointees who had been awaiting confirmation hearings have been told they won't need hearings because their names will be sent directly to the full Senate for a vote before the July 4th recess.

"We're not talking judges here," says a White House legislative affairs staffer. "But we are talking about 40 or so appointments that have been held up for more than six months."

No word on what broke the stalemate, although the president's seeming unwillingness to veto the bloated anti-terrorism legislation that was recently plopped on his desk might be an indication of what was part of the deal.

WATTS WRONG?
Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, chafing at what appears to be a dead-end leadership post as head of the House Republican Conference, is breaking ranks and annoying his leadership colleagues. Last week, as both House Republicans and Democrats pledged to meet a September 11 deadline to pass Department of Homeland Security legislation, Watts weighed in and said that would be impossible. "It's not going to happen," he declared. Immediately he was called on the carpet by Republican leaders Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay.

"He's spent the last two years doing nothing but faxing off quotable quotes to the press from the Republican Conference, pissing away what influence he has, and then he says something stupid like that," says a House Republican. "He should be in hot water with the leadership."

Watts is probably feeling frustrated and showing it. He was once hopeful of moving up the leadership totem pole after the 2002 midterm elections, perhaps to the Whip post. But in the time he's spent as head of the Republican Conference, Watts has failed to build any kind of political base, and now finds himself out in the cold.

When DeLay becomes Republican leader next January, his successor as Whip will be Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, a White House favorite and a rising star in the House. An eager backer of George W. Bush's candidacy, Blunt was appointed to a deputy whip position by DeLay. He's won plaudits for his backroom political skills.

"I know J.C. is frustrated," says a longtime Watts adviser in the House. "He's been trying to find his way in the leadership. But if he'd wanted to move up, he should have positioned himself in the middle of the day-to-day politics of the House. He didn't want that, and instead focused on the big picture. Now I don't think he knows what he wants."

By "big picture" the adviser presumably means keeping the House caucus on message and motivated. But on that score Watts hasn't earned high marks either. He's been criticized for not holding more meetings with lobbyists with business before the House, and for not touting the legislative success of the Republican majority. "Why should he?" counters the adviser. "There are more than enough press secretaries up here who can do that."

Watts appears to be so frustrated that there is talk he may walk away from his House seat after the 2002 election, perhaps returning to Oklahoma or taking a job in the Bush administration.

"I think it's sad that Watts has reached this point," says another House Republican member. "[Outgoing Majority Leader] Dick Armey and DeLay deserve much of the blame if we lose Watts. Perhaps he was miscast in the leadership, but good leadership is identifying talent and using it appropriately, and they haven't used Watts appropriately."

HAWKEYE JOHN
After spending the weekend in Iowa at its state Democratic convention, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards feels pretty confident he can run and win Iowa's Democratic caucus. "This is probably the third or fourth visit for him, and he feels more and more comfortable there," says an Edwards adviser.

Edwards is certainly learning what matters. During his speech he stressed continued financial support for ethanol to much applause from the true believers in the audience. Edwards's presence in Iowa, and his frequent visits, would indicate that he's focusing on that state's caucus as his presidential candidacy's ground zero. Edwards's campaign invested in a complete Iowa Democratic Party mailing list several months ago and is working hard to set up a grassroots program instate.

"Kerry and Gore will probably be battling it out hard in New Hampshire, and Kerry, coming from Massachusetts, probably has a better hold on that state than we would," says the Edwards adviser. "We'll make a good showing there, but Iowa is where we can make a stand."

Edwards, meanwhile, is reconfiguring his Washington staff, with a Clintonian accent. He recently named former Clinton administration staffer Miles Lackey as his chief of staff. He replaces Jeff Lane, who had served in the post for almost two years and reportedly has taken paternity leave. Lackey ran the legislative affairs office for Sandy Berger and the National Security Council, and Edwards hopes he will help him burnish his foreign policy credentials leading into the campaign.

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