Bill Frist is heading into defining days for his leadership of the US Senate - and future in politics - as he decides when, and if, to pull the trigger on the so-called "nuclear option" on judicial nominees.
Methodical by temperament, Dr. Frist (a title the M.D. prefers to senator) consults widely before making decisions. This week, he hasn't had far to look for advice. From President Bush to the Democratic opposition to special interests, he's hearing plenty.
For the man in the middle, the endgame is a critical test of leadership. With an eye on a presidential run in 2008, Frist will need the party's conservative base. But he also can't afford the stigma of presiding over a Senate that no longer works, should a partisan breakdown follow Republican efforts to push court nominees through.
"For the conservative movement from the grass-roots up, this is an absolutely essential battle to win," says Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "It's a test Senator Frist simply has to pass if he is coming calling at the doors of conservatives in 2008."
Passing that test won't be easy. Navigating the nuclear option - a rule change that prevents Democrats from filibustering to prevent a majority of senators from approving judicial nominees - is fraught with uncertainties. The best-case scenario for Frist is to play the hero for conservative voters, saving the nation's courts from activist judges - and Democratic "obstructionists."
Not since John F. Kennedy has a candidate taken a direct path from the Senate to the White House.
Yet Frist clearly makes the short list of potential Republican nominees. He's a Southerner, connected to a vote-rich region that's been pivotal to Republican success in recent decades. He's well-connected to GOP donors. Perhaps most important, he has a compelling personal story: a successful surgeon who still takes time out to treat patients halfway around the world or as close as the Capital steps.
His rise through Senate ranks has been near meteoric. As a freshman senator, he was the White House pick to head the Republican Senate Campaign Committee and win back the Senate in November 2002. The effort earned him the gratitude of his GOP colleagues and access to the top donors in the Party. When Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi stumbled over a racially charged remark, President Bush tapped Frist to lead the new Republican Senate majority.
A surgeon with a national reputation, Frist has scrupulously maintained his identity as the un-Senate lifer. He signs letters to colleagues, Bill Frist, MD. Capitol police describe his rushing to help victims of a 1998 shooting in the Capitol, while tourists were still crouching to avoid fire. The point man for the Senate after anthrax attacks in October 2001, he still functions as informal health adviser to colleagues while continuing higher-profile annual trips to Africa to help out in clinics. He had hoped to spend his years in Senate leadership working on better health care, AIDS relief, or brokering a compromise on stem-cell research.
But instead, he's investing more and more time and political capital on the fight over judges. Conservative activists say the most likely venue for a showdown over Senate rules will be the debate over confirmation of Priscilla Owen of Texas. "She's got a great story," says Manuel Miranda, chairman of the National Coalition to End Judicial Filibusters. A former nominations counsel for Senator Frist, Mr. Miranda resigned from the majority leader's office after leaking strategy memos from activist groups to Senate Democrats on which nominations to filibuster. Winning the fight over judges is "vitally important for his political future," says Miranda. "But even if he were not to run for president it's important for his legacy. He knows he will not be remembered for the class-action bill or the healthy forest initiative."
The top scorer on the 1977 Texas bar exam, Justice Owen broke the "glass ceiling" for women in top corporate law firms in Texas, while helping her widowed mother in Waco and teaching Sunday School. She was reelected to the Texas Supreme Court in 2000 with 84 percent of the vote, the highest of any judge that year.
Democrats say that Owen is a judicial extremist and legislates from the bench.
Frist's office is not confirming reports that the Owen nomination will be the first to the Senate floor for a vote and test of the nuclear option. "They haven't made a final decision, but Owen has been waiting the longest... four years for a vote. Her story is a compelling one," says spokesman Bob Stevenson, who says the majority leader still has several offers of compromise on the table, some of which have not been made public. "We are hopeful, but not terribly optimistic, that we can resolve this" without resorting to the nuclear option.
But it's a high risk operation, regardless of the outcome. Even if he prevails on judicial nominees - with or without the nuclear option - other potential rivals in 2008, such as Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia, are on record with conservative activists pushing harder and earlier for a showdown over judges.
"Frist is going to get remarkably little credit if it passes, and he will get virtually all of the blame if it's defeated. That's poor positioning," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
At the same time, Frist's participation in a controversial "Justice Sunday" rally on judges last month, sponsored by religious conservatives, rankled many moderates.
Last month, Frist offered Democrats extended debate on controversial nominees, in exchange for assurances of a floor vote on all nominees. That offer extends to controversial holds that Republican senators put on some 60 of President Clinton's nominees. Democrats have countered with proposals to allow a vote on less controversial judicial nominees, if Republicans gave up the nuclear option. But so far such compromises have been rejected.
While some GOP leaders claim they have the votes to prevail in a floor vote on a rule change over filibusters, moderates urge caution. "The United States Senate today stands on the edge of the abyss," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday. "But if we cease this aimless game of political chicken, we can restore the Senate to its rightful place as the world's greatest deliberative body."