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Frist’s Approach Faces Early Test

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was laying out the core tenets of his approach to leadership, a three-pronged agenda built on a clear mission, a values system based on trust and a series of relationships that will give his colleagues the chance to shine.

Chopping his hands back and forth on his conference table, Frist talked grand thoughts about the principles driving his office, promoting a model of “disbursion of leadership that I encourage to elevate and minimize the weaknesses behind this one mission.”

“I don’t run out and sort of cough and say, ‘I got a deal, an agreement and all that.’ I really am working with individuals, sharing that larger vision that captures why we’re here as individual Senators and as a group,” Frist said in an April 11 interview.

Minutes later, that vision of a “disbursed leadership” and his reluctance to unilaterally announce deals would come crashing down around Frist, creating the biggest crisis to date for the Senate’s learning-on-the-fly Majority Leader. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stormed down the halls of the Capitol and into Frist’s office, demanding to know what sort of leadership style had allowed him to sanction a tax-cut deal with a committee chairman and two back-benchers without informing his House colleagues.

Now, as Frist returns from a two-week recess and debate about the tax-cut package only getting hotter, all of the Tennessean’s decisions and actions will be under a more tightly focused microscope than at any time since he became leader on Jan. 7.

He’s apologized personally to Hastert and other House GOP leaders for keeping them out of the loop on the tax-cut-limiting deal between Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and two GOP Senators, an action likely to be repeated when the bicameral Republican leadership team sits down Tuesday with President Bush. And his staff is now saying he will push for the largest tax cut possible, a move sure to soothe the Bush administration.

Frist’s leadership skills will be put to the test, and his job will likely be made even more difficult by the questions surrounding the other top GOP Senate leaders, potentially distracting a Conference that was already on edge regarding Frist’s acquiescence on the tax-cut deal.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the Conference chairman and No. 3 in the leadership, has been under fire for comments supporting state laws outlawing homosexual acts and blaming the Catholic Church scandal on liberal support of judicial privacy rulings.

Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was hospitalized last Tuesday with a blood clot in his left ankle, coming less than three months after triple-bypass surgery forced him out of the Senate for a month and limited him to working only part time in March and April. His doctors have said the blood clot is not related to the bypass, and McConnell is expected to be back to work in the Capitol today.

Aides say Frist’s style won’t change at all, referring to the tax-and-budget mess as an isolated incident in what they view as an otherwise very successful first 100 days of leadership. They have worked hard the past few weeks to try to dispel the notion that Frist hasn’t performed up to expectations. Setting aside their intramural brawl on taxes, Republicans contrast their legislative successes — passing 11 leftover 2002 appropriations, a supplemental spending bill and a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions — with what they consider to be last year’s do-nothing Democratic-led Senate.

Now the stakes get even higher, with the details of the tax package to be worked out in the next few weeks, followed by a shift to energy and health care issues that could define the 2004 elections and determine the perception of his tenure as Majority Leader.

“I think we’re going to be able to address the bold initiatives,” Frist said. “You’ll see Medicare come through, you’ll see energy come through, and that will probably take us up into summer. And then we’ll see whether the style works.”

Unlike recent party leaders in the Senate, Frist came to the leader’s post in a most unorthodox manner. Frist’s eight years in Senate service is roughly equivalent to the tenures of then-Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) when they took over their respective party posts. But those three saw the position as the culmination of decades of work in politics, first as a Hill aide and then as a lawmaker.

Taking over after only eight years in any form of elective politics, Frist sees a rare opportunity arising from the strange circumstances that led to his meteoric rise. He feels a sense of freedom that other leaders might not have because they had to campaign for the post and make promises.

“I didn’t come here specifically seeking this office, my colleagues know that. Therefore, what I’m able to do is define a mission for the Majority Leader office,” he said, adding: “I don’t have to prove myself. I don’t feel, in the sense that I don’t have to run out to the microphone, don’t have to be on every television show, don’t have to be saying I’m the greatest Majority Leader ever. I know I’m not. Maybe someday I will be if I do this job well over the next few years. But, I don’t have to rely on charismatic moments in order to be a good Majority Leader.”

With no intention of running for re-election in 2006, Frist also has a finite window to accomplish what he wants to do. His prior statements have appeared to indicate there’s a slight chance he’d run for re-election, but those comments appear more geared to avoid being pinned down as having taken a term-limit pledge.

“You never know what you’ll be doing in five years and it’s just easier not to take a pledge and rule out anything. But it is not my intention to run, nor has it been,” he said.

That timeline would give him the opportunity to run for president in 2008, but when pressed about future ambitions Frist repeatedly demurs, often referencing his desire to return to doing medical mission work in Africa.

While Frist frequently references his heart surgeon background in much the way some athletes-turned-politicians employ sports analogies, his attitude and mannerisms sometimes just as much reflect those of a corporate CEO.

He has a clearly defined mission: “Move America forward to serve the cause of liberty.” And he says he’ll rely on clearly defined values to help achieve the mission: “stability and trust.”

Frist says the third pillar of his work ethic is “relationships,” and he’s established at least a half-dozen “strategic action goals” — one of which, of course, is to grow the GOP’s razor-thin majority in the 2004 elections.

And Frist is revealing himself to be very much of a delegator, frequently stepping aside at the regular Tuesday press conferences to allow one of his Conference members to field questions. While he doesn’t directly criticize Lott or former GOP Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Frist makes clear his model is fellow Tennessean Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the Majority Leader in the early 1980s.

Unlike Baker, Lott and Dole tended to centralize leadership within their office. When committee chairmen struggled, Lott sometimes pulled bills from committee and sent them straight to the floor, a practice Minority Leader Tom Daschle also used during his stint as Majority Leader in the 107th Congress.

Frist doesn’t want to do that, and he’s symbolically reached out to the GOP chairmen by reinstituting the mandatory weekly meeting between him and the chairmen.

Stylistically speaking, Frist is also a major departure from Lott, who hailed from small-town Mississippi, the son of a sharecropper-turned-pipefitter at a ship-building plant.

Frist, raised in suburban Nashville, comes from a wealthy medical family that established Columbia/HCA. The clan was also politically connected, as his father served as doctor to several Tennessee governors.

Frist’s shirts bear his initials, “WHF,” monogrammed into the cuffs, and he speaks in a slow, thoughtful tone, often pausing to think before answering questions — a sharp contrast to the rapid-fire Lott and acid-tongued Dole, both of whom were naturals on Sunday talk shows.

Trying to stay fresh on ideas, Frist hosts weekly Monday evening dinners in his office with about 10 people connected by an issue or idea. A recent dinner covered health care in poor communities, and a number of black church officials from the District had seats at the table with Frist.

He’s hoping that the gentle, Southern charm — along with that clearly defined mission based on values and relationships — can win over his colleagues in the long run. And in the process, he’s also hoping it can reshape the tone and civility of the chamber, and he’s reached out to none other than Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) for advice.

“My concern about the culture of the institution and respect for the institution is real and that’s why I go to Bob Byrd for advice, again in a quiet way,” he said.

Moments before he would receive a tongue-lashing from Hastert over his handling of the tax cut, Frist admitted that there was still a lot to be learned about the job.

“There will be things that I’ll make big mistakes on and then I will feel probably that I should have done something differently,” he said. “But the criticism today and and second guessing and all — I just don’t read as much of it as I should.”

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