A month into his new job, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has found an unlikely adviser at his side: the man he helped dethrone as Republican leader.
At least once a day, Frist said, he seeks out Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for “practical … strategic advice.” Frist also sought to downplay any rift between them even though he played a lead role in ending Lott’s tenure as leader in December.
“Trent knows that this was not my intention, to be in leadership, and I understand that what happened to him, in truth, is a real tragedy,” Frist said in an interview last week in his Capitol office, where relics of his doctoring days remain prominently displayed. “Our friendship has not been affected whatsoever.
“He has got knowledge and experience that nobody else in the body has, and I talk to him about that and will continue to solicit [advice] over the next two years,” the Tennessee Republican added.
A top lieutenant to Lott in the 107th Congress and head of the GOP campaign committee, Frist is credited with helping restore Senate Republicans to power and putting the Mississippi Republican on the cusp of again becoming Majority Leader before Lott’s own words cost him the Senate’s top job.
The Mississippian was ousted from his post in December after making comments that appeared to praise retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 segregationist presidential platform. Lott was prepared to fight to keep his job, but when Frist announced plans to challenge him, Lott stepped down the following day.
“My colleagues came to me,” Frist said. “It wasn’t a career path I had chosen myself and so in that period of four or five days I listened — mainly to my colleagues — make the case of ‘Why me?’ and why that would be appropriate.”
It is the support of those same Senate Republicans that has helped Frist score impressive victories over Democrats in the first weeks of the 108th Congress. Frist was able to keep the unpredictable Republican Conference on message and abide by President Bush’s wishes to slash domestic spending in last year’s overdue spending bills.
This early success has helped to dispel — or at least muffle — the chatter in Democratic circles that Frist is in over his head.
“All of the amendments make it very difficult to move through the swamp, but I think he is doing a good job,” Sen. Zell Miller
(D-Ga.) said during last week’s debate over the omnibus appropriations bill. “I think he is doing it with a demeanor and spirit that I find laudable.”
And while he is winning plaudits for his early efforts in the Senate, Frist is already warning that he plans a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to controlling the chamber.
In his first Senate term, Frist was labeled a policy wonk by Washington insiders — more interested in crafting health care legislation than raising money for his next race or learning the Senate’s arcane procedures. So it was a surprise to many people when Frist decided to take the helm at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where he served as the Senate GOP’s chief fundraiser after being re-elected easily in 2000.
With 20 Senate seats to defend (compared to the Democrat’s 14) there was little expectation that Republicans would be able to regain the majority in the midterm. But aided by a politically active White House, Frist went on a recruiting spree and squeezed millions of dollars out of GOP donors to help defy the odds-makers’ predictions of Democratic gains. Senate Republicans netted two seats on Nov. 5, enough to give the GOP control of the Senate by a razor-thin 51 to 49 margin.
In the days following the elections, Frist was basking in the GOP victories and made a point of telling those who asked that he planned to turn his attention toward legislating. At the time, several Republican sources said Frist was privately interested in building up his legislative record in anticipation of a possible presidential bid in 2008. The Lott episode caused Frist to shift gears, although last week he declined to rule out a future White House campaign.
“I can tell you just like I would have six weeks ago, my intentions were not very specifically to be in Senate leadership, and here I am,” Frist said. “So I am smart enough to know that I can’t predict what I will be doing, but my intentions are to spend 12 years here and see what opportunities there are. And I put at the top of that [returning to] medicine.”
Frist was first elected in 1994, knocking off veteran Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.). His second term expires in 2006.
‘A Calming Influence’
In the short term, though, Frist said he is focusing on the task at hand: keeping Bush’s agenda moving through Congress while at the same time making sure he serves the needs of his GOP colleagues.
“People can overplay how much I talk to President Bush … there is this vision we are just constantly on the phone,” Frist said.
Even though the Majority Leader said he has “tremendous respect” for Bush, he also understands the “legislative branch and the executive branch are coequal.
“I understand my commitment is very much to the United States Senate as Majority Leader, to all 100 Senators, but also to my particular caucus,” Frist said. “So you will see issues come forward that there will be discussion … but also a need for this thing to go forward.”
It is this determined style that endears him to his colleagues, although they acknowledge it is not always going to be easy for Frist.
“I think he has been a calming influence after a period of turmoil,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who frequently spars with Bush and GOP leaders. “I think I may have disagreements with Bill Frist and he may have to say, ‘Look, I am going to oppose you,’ but I am saying his leadership style in the first couple of weeks has been quite effective.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a leading moderate who at times strays from the party line, agreed that Frist should be praised for his work thus far, but chose a baseball analogy to forecast his likely future.
“I think he is doing very well, but nobody is going to bat a thousand,” Specter said.
With such a slim majority, Frist said he is realistic about what can be accomplished and pledged to reach across the aisle to help pass legislation.
“Voting 51-lockstep on every vote is not practical and not realistic,” Frist said. “If you go in thinking that is the way we are going to be running the United States Senate you are probably doing a disservice to the institution where debate, discussion, dialogue and assimilation of ideas does mean that there has to be a reflection of 100 United States Senators, not just 51.”
Frist acknowledges that he is a novice in Senate procedure — the confusing precedents and rules that only a handful of staffers and even fewer Members come to fully grasp during their service in the chamber. To help him navigate the Senate’s legislative tripwires, Frist has surrounded himself with a team of Senate veterans anchored by Mitch Bainwol, his executive director at the NRSC.
“People say, ‘You don’t know all the Senate rules,’ but I got people around me who clearly do know all the Senate rules and I can access them,” Frist said.
In addition to his staff, Frist relies on the help of his leadership team, particularly Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell
(R-Ky.). For outside advice, he occasionally turns to retired Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
“Senator Dole I ask questions a lot in terms of being Majority Leader,” Frist said. “What are the responsibilities? What are the different styles? How much can you really accomplish.”
For his part, Lott said he tries to help Frist look at all the available options to him, as well as counseling him “a little bit about personalities.”
“I will give you one example,” Lott said. “He was having a problem with a Senator and I said, ‘Tell him, “Don’t give you the entire history and get it fixed by four o’clock.” Otherwise he will keep you tangled up for an hour.’”
A Physician’s Mindset
The stories about Frist’s penchant for e-mailing staffers at all hours of the night are true, current staffers said. A heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, he sleeps for only a few hours a night and continues to retain other traits of his first profession such as the ability to focus on the issue at hand while simultaneously preparing for the next obstacle.
The Majority Leader said he plans to establish a similar workman-like tone in Republican leadership meetings and, eventually, the entire Senate chamber.
“Meetings will be run efficiently,” Frist said. “We will have an objective coming to meetings and we will leave with an action plan for meetings. Each person coming into a meeting will be able to participate and be heard from, and that sort of discipline in individual meetings will be the same on the [Senate] floor.”
But Frist was careful not to leave the impression that he planned to use parliamentary tactics to handcuff Senators from using the tools available to them to be heard.
“The purpose of the Senate is debate and amendments,” he said. “So we will hear both sides … it won’t be a railroading of one idea through.”
So far, though, Frist has ruled the chamber with an iron fist. He cancelled the Senate’s first scheduled recess last week, forcing Senators to return to Washington to complete work on the fiscal 2003 spending bills. A number of official overseas trips had to be cancelled and many Senators and staffers grumbled about having to work while the House was in recess.
While Frist said he would “respect recesses in the future,” he felt their was an urgent need to finish the unfinished work and approve Tom Ridge as the new secretary of Homeland Security.
“We did have trips, meeting with foreign leaders all over the world planned, and people basically canceled all of that and it was a huge inconvenience,” Frist said. “But people did it because they recognized that the nation’s business comes first.”
A Two-Year Plan
In a move his critics are bound to dismiss as the naivete of a newcomer to leadership, Frist said he is in the early stages of crafting a two-year plan for the Senate that would include a rough timetable for when specific legislative issues might be addressed.
“I hope to be able to plan out the whole Congress for two years and constantly refine that in terms of when we will be doing each bill,” said Frist, who noted that he would rely heavily on his committee chairmen to help set the agenda.
In fact, the Majority Leader has already instructed the chairmen to submit a list of bills that might be ready for Senate floor action in the upcoming year.
With last year’s business all but wrapped up, Frist said he realizes the next issue at hand is passing a budget that will establish guidelines for next year’s 13 spending bills.
“We will be able to prioritize, and then lay out an agenda after that, to fulfill the budget,” he said.
But Frist hesitated to give any specific dates and goals until the budget is passed, likely in April.
“In terms of setting clear cut objectives … not having the budget yet, I am not in the position to say we will have this many appropriations bills done at a certain date and time,” Frist said. “I would just be talking.”