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Majority Leader Faces Balancing Act in Senate

Times Staff Writers

Leading the majority party in the Senate, a job that has been likened to herding cats, is tough enough in ordinary times. For Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), last week’s Republican election triumphs paradoxically made the job tougher yet.

Conservatives describe themselves as “downright giddy” that the elections expanded the Senate GOP majority by four seats to 55 and cost Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota his seat.

They hope the election results will breathe new life into such causes as banning same-sex marriage, making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, overhauling Social Security, limiting payouts in medical malpractice cases and confirming more conservative judges.

Frist may soon feel cursed by these high expectations.

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Within his own party, he must bring together conservatives eager to push their agenda through Congress and moderates who feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of the Republicans.

Frist also needs the support of some Democrats to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters -- at a time when Democrats are bitter over Frist’s role in Daschle’s defeat.

And as he keeps one eye on advancing Bush’s agenda, he will have the other on burnishing his own credentials for a possible presidential run in 2008 -- goals that may not always coincide.

“The virtue of having a larger majority is he can pass more legislation,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former Senate Republican staff member who is a senior fellow with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “But the downside is that he has no excuses if he fails.”

Frist’s first challenge will be whether to allow Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Conservatives are livid that Specter, a moderate, predicted that judicial nominees opposed to abortion rights would have a difficult time winning Senate confirmation. They have flooded the Senate with calls seeking to deny the gavel to Specter, who is next in line in seniority to become chairman.

If Frist steps in to deny Specter the chairmanship, he risks angering a fellow Republican whose support he needs and other senators who cherish the chamber’s tradition of seniority. If he doesn’t, he could anger conservative groups that are crucial to his presidential aspirations.

Specter is only the beginning. The American Conservative Union, which gave Frist a 90% score on its report card last year, has said that with the election of more conservative Republican senators, they expect the Senate to show “more conservative backbone.”

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Frist is charming, diplomatic -- and conflict-averse. But “sometimes you have to be willing to engage in conflict to get something done around here,” said a Senate Republican staffer on condition of anonymity. Frist is “always trying to take as diplomatic, people-pleasing a stance as possible,” the staffer said.

But Michael Franc, a former Republican congressional aide who works for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said that within Frist’s “placid demeanor, there exists a real tiger ... willing to go at it with his opposition.”

Some of Frist’s Republican colleagues believe he can make the bigger Republican majority work to his advantage. “With 55 Republicans in the Senate and President Bush in the White House, the chances of his continuing to build a distinguished record of accomplishment is pretty good,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Frist will have plenty of opportunity. Last week the president listed partial privatization of Social Security and income tax reform at the top of his second-term agenda, and one or more Bush nominees to the Supreme Court could come before the Senate for confirmation.

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This year, some Republicans have been frustrated with what they see as Frist’s inability to break the Senate’s legislative logjam. Last year, Frist helped shepherd through the Senate landmark legislation granting a prescription drug benefit to Medicare recipients and Bush’s $350-billion tax cut.

But a number of other GOP legislative priorities stalled, including legislation to overhaul national energy policy and to curb what critics call frivolous lawsuits, and Congress has approved just four of 13 regular spending bills for the new fiscal year. Congress is coming back next week for a lame-duck session to approve the remaining spending bills.

But even before senators return to Washington, the Specter issue has put Frist in what Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, called “a bit of a tight place.”

So difficult is Frist’s position, said Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations for Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, that his best course of action is to say and do nothing.

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“If he weighs in against Sen. Specter, then he is taking a stand against the principle of seniority, [which] is very important to senators,” Schwartz said. “If he does not and defends Sen. Specter, then he risks the wrath of the conservative base.”

Frist’s predicament, said a GOP staffer who asked to remain unidentified, is that while 55 Republican senators is better than 51, it is not 60 -- but the expectations are high that he can deliver.

“That’s why you’re seeing the uproar on Sen. Specter,” the staffer said. “It is not about Sen. Specter. [Conservatives] want to take a stand here.” That leaves Frist “with a balancing act. The needle that he has to thread is to know when to be confrontational with the Democrats, when to sit down and negotiate.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Frist risked filibusters if he did not reach out to the Democratic minority. Republicans, she said, “should remember that the nation is very polarized.”

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Frist’s success could depend, ironically, on a Democrat -- the presumptive minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Relations between Republicans and Democrats remain strained after Frist took the unusual step of traveling to South Dakota to campaign against Daschle.

And if Frist gets serious about running for president in 2008, he will have to deal with a Senate that includes at least four potential rivals: fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Democrats John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Frist’s presidential ambition could get in the way of his leadership role in the Senate.

“The majority leader has to get things done to be judged a success, while a presidential candidacy is all about positioning to the right in the Republican Party,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

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But Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based budget watchdog group, the Concord Coalition, said Frist could run on his stewardship of Social Security and tax reform.

“Inevitably,” Bixby said, “Frist’s leadership will be largely judged by -- and his reputation going into 2008 as a potential presidential candidate will result from -- the fate of these major initiatives. He’s got a lot at stake.”


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