Frist's ascension further shifts power to White House

Tennessee senator's rise to majority leader will bolster Bush's agenda, but carry risks.

The sun will rise on a new Washington Monday. With Senate Republicans scheduled to name Bill Frist their new leader, the White House will have what it wants: a fresh, untainted face running the Senate and ready to collaborate on its agenda.

That agenda - tax cuts, market-oriented healthcare reforms, the selection of conservative judges - will now proceed without a Senate leader, Trent Lott, whose presence at the top would have brought intense racial scrutiny to every issue. But after the two-week firestorm triggered by Senator Lott's racially charged comment, the political landscape in Washington has been altered. The White House has emerged from the crucible with even more power, as Senator Frist - a close ally of the president - takes the reins.

This consolidation of power, hard on the heels of the Republicans' narrow takeover of the Senate, could be both a blessing and a burden to President Bush. On the economy - a key factor in how Americans will vote in 2004 - the White House will, more than ever, have no one to blame but itself if the public is unhappy.

"The White House can now renew the focus on its agenda, and attempt to turn November into a mandate," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. "Republicans will breathe a sigh of relief and just call this an unfortunate episode."

'A different kind of language'

But that won't be easy, Mr. Zogby adds. "The Republicans will now have to be more sensitive. You're going to be hearing a different kind of language. If the talk is about school choice, it will be a minority focus. If they're talking about the average family, they won't be talking about Ward and June Cleaver."

And this idea that Frist will be a yes man for the White House is nonsense, say observers. "Right-hand man? When you have 50 guys beside him and you think he won't be independent, that's just absurd," says retired Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, who served in the Senate leadership. "And what's wrong with having a guy in there who's pretty friendly with the president?"

Much has been made of how important it is for the Senate to present the "right face" to the public in its leadership - and certainly, when that faces makes a ghastly public comment, the party is damaged. But in fact, the average American couldn't have named the Senate majority leader before the Lott crisis. So it may be an overstatement to suggest Frist will have much impact on how the public views Republicans.

Protector of Senate pride

From Frist's perspective, he may feel he needs to prove his bona fides as an independent leader and a protector of the Senate's institutional pride - and so the White House can't necessarily count on smooth sailing for the next two years.

There also remains a wide spectrum of views among Senate Republicans. With such a small margin of control, even one senator can give the party problems.

Frist, who is untested in Senate leadership, will also need some time to put his own team together - a process that could delay action on the White House agenda. And by next summer, the politics of the 2004 presidential race will weigh ever more heavily on both parties, and could make it increasingly difficult for Bush to finish any major initiatives.

Republicans' slim margin of Senate control - 51 seats to Democrats' 49 - leaves plenty of room for Democrats to thwart Bush's plans. The Senate rule requiring 60 votes to halt a filibuster will be a powerful tool.

But Democrats can't just be seen as naysayers. After their two-week hiatus from the spotlight (with the large exception of former Vice President Gore's announcement that he won't run for president in 2004), the heat is on them again to find leadership - and a message.

While black Democratic activists have been happy to join the chorus denouncing Lott's comment suggesting the nation would have been better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president, some are also looking hard at the their own party's problems - including the feeling among blacks that their loyalty to Democrats is taken for granted.

Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster who is African-American, sees the Lott episode as an opportunity for people of all colors to discuss race, one of the nation's most incendiary topics.

"For too long, a lot of white Americans have had their head in the sand on the question of race," he says. "This is an opportunity to discuss race and the role it plays in America."

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