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What kind of year has it been for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist? It all depends on whom you ask.

Now in his second term, the Tennessee Republican has more than his share of admirers and defenders, and he can point to the enactment of crucial Medicare legislation as a success that was in doubt until almost the very end.

[IMGCAP(1)] But the Senator also has his critics and must shoulder the burden for a number of legislative failures. While Frist played an important role in the Senate’s passage of a Medicare bill with a prescription drug benefit, the Senate couldn’t pass an energy bill, didn’t vote on key Bush judicial nominees, never got around to a major transportation bill and left Appropriations bills unfinished.

Critics of the Senate Majority Leader portray him as too accommodating, too “hands off.” They argue that Frist ceded too much power to committee chairmen and wasted too much time on symbolic skirmishes that produced few real benefits for the party. Ultimately, they regard him as unfamiliar with the ways of the Senate — and with the need to twist arms along the way.

“The Senate hung around and nothing got done [for too long]. Nobody was doing anything,” says one lobbyist and veteran Capitol Hill insider about Frist’s leadership.

“The Senate is working bankers hours,” complains another operative, who argues that Frist still “doesn’t understand the process” in the Senate and failed to accomplish very much.

Supporters of the GOP leader dismiss those criticisms. They argue either that strong-arm tactics don’t work in the Senate or that Frist operates in a less flashy but still effective style.

“He goes about his job methodically. He doesn’t make a big deal about what he’s doing,” responds one aide to a GOP Senator, who called the Senate’s tempo this year “methodical” rather than “slow.”

Others, including a number of Senators, are particularly complimentary of Frist’s style. They view him as a hard worker who tries to build consensus while keeping his focus on the goal.

Ultimately, Frist’s effectiveness must be measured by his results, but even that conclusion starts an argument.

One lobbyist with clear Republican bloodlines argues that Frist “took a ‘C’ year and turned it to a strong B+ or A- with Medicare.” But does the passage of Medicare overshadow all of the Senate’s other failures? Those who say it does argue that the enactment of a prescription drug benefit for seniors was the president’s top priority, and that Frist needed to use all of his skills to pass the monumental bill.

But others speculate that Frist’s success with Medicare and prescription drugs stems from his personal interest in the subject matter, and they wonder about 2004.

“The question,” one lobbyist insists persuasively, “is whether he can excel at being Majority Leader when a bill isn’t of personal interest or importance to him. That’s still an open question.”

“Frist has a good public presence,” continues the lobbyist, “but Majority Leader is an inside job, and it isn’t clear whether he has the skills or inclination to be an insider player.”

Politically, for both Congressional Republicans and the White House, the Medicare bill steals a key issue from the Democrats and gives GOP incumbents a high-profile accomplishment on which they can run for re-election. So if Frist’s effectiveness is measured primarily in political terms, he had a terrific session by passing Medicare, a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortion, another tax cut bill and a bill to protect consumers from telemarketers.

But leadership is normally measured by more than just one bill or even a few pieces of legislation, and it is here that Frist’s critics, both on the right and in the lobbyist community, make their case.

Congress still has to pass an omnibus Appropriations bill when it returns in 2004, and the Senate failed to move an asbestos bill, a bill limiting class-action suits, a transportation bill or a high-priority energy bill, just to mention a few leftover items.

Lobbyists close to the energy bill, which fell two votes short of the needed 60, complain that Frist holds some responsibility for the defeat because he failed “to get a couple of key legislators on board.” And many conservatives are less than pleased by the Senate’s accomplishments this year, including what they perceive as excessive spending.

But Frist continues to have the strong support of an unusual ally, longtime conservative leader Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.

“I think he is the best Republican Leader since Ev Dirksen,” says Weyrich about Frist. “He listens. He learns. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he has the thinnest possible majority. He is somebody who has very deep convictions, even though he doesn’t advertise them all the time. He’s done about as good a job as a leader could do.”

So how good or bad a year did Frist have? It’s a question with an infinite number of answers. For when it comes to his performance as Senate Majority Leader, there apparently is no consensus.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report

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