Frist Talks Up Health Care, Helping Minorities

Times Staff Writer

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) sketched out his vision of how to overcome racial divides Wednesday, pointing to his support for funding of historically black colleges, programs to treat AIDS in Africa and health-care reforms to overcome racial disparities in medical treatment.

"For reasons we don't fully understand, but we've got to face and we've got to elevate, we know that African Americans today do not live as long [and] don't have the same access" to medical care as whites, Frist said, speaking in his first news conference since his colleagues elevated him more than two weeks ago.

"And that's something I began to address a long time ago and will continue to address."

Frist, who replaced Sen. Trent Lott as party leader after the Mississippi Republican made a racially charged remark last month, also said he wants to boost federal support for faith-based social programs -- a priority for many urban black leaders.

His top lieutenant, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, added that Senate Republicans would fight to ensure that states get enough money to implement voting reforms mandated by a new federal law. That has been a top goal of black lawmakers since the problems exposed in 2000 by the presidential election recount debacle in Florida.

But even as the Senate GOP leadership was seeking new ways to reach out to African Americans alienated by Lott's remark praising the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, they faced sharp questions about President Bush's controversial renomination of a federal judge from Mississippi to an appellate court.

Frist chose his words carefully when asked by reporters whether he would endorse the nomination of Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. During the last Congress, the Democrat-led Senate Judiciary Committee blocked the nomination, largely because of questions about the judge's civil rights record. Many Republicans and Bush denounced the Democrats' refusal to allow a full Senate vote on Pickering as unfair, a criticism White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer repeated Wednesday.

Now Frist, as majority leader, is in charge of setting the Senate schedule. That power includes deciding when and whether to call judicial nominations for confirmation.

Pickering, who was controversial even before Lott set off a national furor last month with his remark at Thurmond's 100th birthday party, is certain to draw heavy Democratic criticism. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is already promising a filibuster.

Lott had appeared to hedge his previously ironclad support of Pickering in a televised interview before he stepped down as leader. Frist on Wednesday praised Pickering, but he stopped short of an endorsement.

"I haven't sat through any of the hearings. So I'm speaking having observed from afar. And I reserve the right to look at the information and the facts," Frist said. "But let me say that Judge Pickering is, I believe, extraordinarily qualified, based on what I've heard, to serve as an appellate judge."

The news conference at the Library of Congress was held as Senate Republicans were discussing their agenda for the year in a retreat. It was another step in Frist's slow public emergence since he challenged and then toppled Lott. On Dec. 23, when Frist won the leadership by acclamation, he gave a short speech but declined to take questions from reporters. Since then he has kept a low profile.

Wednesday's event lasted barely 20 minutes. Frist answered just four of eight questions posed by reporters, while other GOP senators jumped in to answer the rest.

Bob Stevenson, Frist's communications director, said the senator was pressed for time because of meetings. "You'll find that he'll be accessible," Stevenson said. "You'll have more than ample opportunity to ask him questions."

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