GOP's Frist hones Senate operating skills

After a rocky start, the Senate's majority leader refines his understated style to score a major win on Medicare

Few Senate leaders have ever risen to power as swiftly - or inspired such great expectations - as Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, who vaulted over all his senior colleagues to be voted Republican leader a year ago this week.

Republicans turned to the Nashville surgeon to set things right when former GOP leader Trent Lott made a racially insensitive remark last December. After only one full term in the Congress - and no prior political experience - he was one of the least seasoned leaders in Senate history. Yet, insiders were already touting Dr. Frist as the party's best White House prospect in 2008.

But he's finding that running the Senate - a job another Tennessee majority leader, Republican Howard Baker, once described as "herding cats" - is a lot harder than running an operating room.

From the start, Frist's greatest strength was the new face he gave to the GOP leadership. Start with the new sign on the Republican Leader's door: William H. Frist, MD. Then, there were his annual trips to Africa to help out in rural clinics and his fight for global HIV/AIDS programs. Lately, he has volunteered to treat primates at the National Zoo.

Rough debut

It's been a rough debut year: Frist began his tenure with a swipe at the outgoing Democratic leadership for failing to complete annual spending bills, but ended his own first year with seven of the 13 FY-2004 appropriations bills unfinished. He appeared uneasy before a microphone and was occasionally outflanked on the floor.

Moreover, a key energy bill failed by two votes in the Senate. Nor did Frist break through a Democratic filibuster on four of President Bush's judicial nominees. Instead, a controversial 40-hour GOP "talkathon" last month to turn up pressure on Democrats resulted in two more nominees being denied a vote on the Senate floor. Democrats dubbed the exercise "amateurish."

But all that pales before the achievement of getting a long-delayed prescription drug bill through the Senate - viewed as a key to GOP prospects next fall.

"He got Medicare reform passed, and that's the high point of the whole Congress right now," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.

A year into the job, Frist no longer pulls his signature all-nighters once a week to stay fit for surgeon's hours. But colleagues and staff still get electronic messages from the Republican leader at 3:45 a.m. An understated leader, he's more likely to e-mail than buttonhole a colleague in a corner.

From Day 1, when he was sandbagged on the Senate floor by a surprise motion by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, he has successfully avoided repeating most mistakes. But the calculus of a closely divided Senate constantly forced Frist to make tough choices.

One of the most controversial was his agreement with Senate GOP moderates to limit President Bush's $726 billion economic-stimulus proposal to $350 billion. This move outraged House conservatives, who argued that GOP gains in 2002 elections should be enough to power through the full tax cut. In response, the House passed a $550 billion bill, expecting Frist to budge. He did not. In the end, the tax cut passed at $350 billion, still the third largest in US history.

Pragmatism

It's a pattern that ran throughout Frist's first year: Work with committee chairmen. Keep promises. And don't dream that you can browbeat Republican moderates into submission - a tactic employed during negotiations over Bush's first tax cut in 2001 that led to the defection of GOP Sen. James Jeffords and a turnover of power to the Democrats.

The Jeffords syndrome is the new normal for any GOP leader in a closely divided Senate. Moderates say Frist treats them fairly and allows them a voice in the caucus. "We've had a good relationship," says Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the GOP's most independent voice.

While House GOP leaders have powerful rules to limit debate and enforce party discipline, the Senate works on consensus. Frist learned that lesson well. "He seemed every inch the amateur for the first few months as leader. But he's catching on and demonstrating expertise in that post," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "That quiet air of confidence that doctors project seems increasingly to fit well within the atmosphere of the Senate."

Frist has promised to quit the Senate by 2006. Insiders note that exit date leaves time to campaign for the White House in 2008. "A third of the Senate will probably think about running. He has the most credibility of all the senators," says Mr. Sabato.

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