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Leaders Look To Move Ahead

Senate Republicans sought to bring a swift end Tuesday to lingering questions surrounding their leadership team, hoping to pivot away from two controversies toward a successful run of domestic policy initiatives.

Taking different paths toward the same goal, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) each addressed their GOP colleagues for the first time since separate flare-ups put the two in the spotlight.

Frist, during the weekly GOP luncheon, apologized to his fellow Senators for not alerting most of them to a side deal on limiting the size of the tax cut, a mea culpa that he repeated throughout the day to reporters.

“I have apologized. I have said I’ve made mistakes. The big mistake, lesson learned, is no surprises,” Frist said immediately following the luncheon.

His comments were part of what could be considered a tour of contrition for Frist, whose handling of the tax-cut package has been the most serious crisis of his first four months on the job as leader. On Monday, he held his first leadership meeting since the April 11 vote, and said he spoke later that night with House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

Before Tuesday’s lunch, he stopped into Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s office, dropping in on the Kentucky Republican’s weekly meeting of his Deputy Whips. Late Tuesday evening Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) traveled to the White House for a meeting. And this morning, a bicameral group of GOP leaders is slated to sit down with President Bush.

Santorum, who after the lunch went to the White House for an already scheduled meeting without addressing reporters, made a short statement to his colleagues, thanking them for their calls of support last week. He had come under fire from some homosexual rights groups for endorsing laws that would outlaw homosexual acts and blaming the Catholic Church sex scandal on judicial rulings supported by liberals.

Santorum did not flinch from those views, which he contends are similar to Supreme Court rulings on anti-sodomy laws. At the lunch, according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), “He said he appreciated the calls, the thoughts and prayers of his colleagues.”

“He thanked the people for their kind words,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), one of a handful of Santorum’s Senate GOP colleagues to publicly criticize his views.

Chafee added that no Senator rose to criticize Santorum at Tuesday’s lunch.

The meeting was attended by Vice President Cheney, whose daughter, Mary, is on the board of the Republican Unity Coalition, which called on Santorum to apologize last week for his remarks. Former President Gerald Ford and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) also serve on the coalition’s board.

Both Frist and Santorum emerged from the GOP luncheon with the full public support of their colleagues.

“It is already behind us,” McConnell, who was not informed of Frist’s tax deal, said of the debacle. “The leader enjoys our full confidence.”

Frist’s decision to be so forceful in his public apologies and explicitly deferential toward Hastert caught his colleagues by surprise, and the surprise was a pleasant one for most of them.

“You saw something that leaders rarely do because their arrogance won’t allow them,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

“I have never seen that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Upon learning of the deal worked out by Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Graham had threatened to vote against any tax-cut package that is limited to $350 billion, less than half of what Bush initially sought. After Frist’s apologies, Graham was much more conciliatory.

“We’re back on track,” he said.

Frist said that his continued public apologies were designed to try to re-establish a level of trust with his House counterparts, particularly Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), both of whom lashed out at Frist for not notifying them of his side deal to limit the tax-cut package.

“You’ve got to have trust among your colleagues and the House of Representatives, and I’m absolutely committed to that — to rebuild that trust, if that trust has really been lost, to say that I made a mistake,” he said.

In contrast to their support of Frist’s repeated public apologies, GOP Senators were pleased that Santorum has not continued to try to explain his views on criminalizing certain sexual behavior, contending that it would only keep the controversy alive in the media.

“Little stuff becomes big stuff,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who was recently assailed for comments he made about his predecessor, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn), in an interview. He said that although he does not agree with Santorum on his views of sexuality, he expects Santorum to continue to be able to serve as the leader in delivering the Senate Republican message, the main task of his post. “I may have a different position than him on those issues, but I strongly support Rick Santorum.”

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he was one of those who called Santorum last week, using his own experience in December in which he was chased from his leadership post for remarks regarding segregation. “My wife said, ‘They’re hammering Rick, you’d better call him,’” Lott recalled.

He specifically counseled Santorum to come up with a single, prepared response to questions about his comments, a well-thought-out reply, and then drop the matter. “My advice to him was, say whatever it is you’re going to say. Say it once, and don’t say it repeatedly.”

Lott noted that he made multiple apologies, in written statements and then radio interviews, press conferences and cable TV sit-down interviews. “I kept the story alive,” Lott said.

Graham dismissed the entire Santorum controversy, saying it would have no political impact on Santorum or Republicans. Santorum’s statements, he said, “has no effect on anybody. Take that for what it’s worth.”

One GOP Senator sounding the rare discordant note on Santorum was Gordon Smith (Ore.), who said the Republican “big tent is always a work in progress.”

“I think America has evolved on this issue,” Smith said, noting he once “had views not unlike Rick’s.”

But Smith said he now believes homosexuals have a right to privacy. “I listened to enough people,” Smith said, explaining his evolution.

“There are real family values and there are counterfeits,” he said, intentionally twisting a favorite conservative campaign theme.

Smith didn’t call for Santorum to apologize or step down from leadership, noting that “Rick represents the continued views of many Republicans.”

The gay community, he said, has become “very sophisticated” in its understanding of Republicans and is willing to give the party time to change its views, noting that many gays understand that the GOP is fully in charge of the White House and Congress and they want to work within that structure to change those views.

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