Frist’s Senate Leadership Faulted as Self-Serving
As he prepares to leave the Senate and position himself for a presidential bid, Bill Frist faces mounting criticism that he has proved an ineffectual majority leader whose legislative agenda increasingly is dictated by his White House ambitions.
Complaints about the patrician Tennessean by fellow Republicans intensified this week, sparked by his decision to force Senate debate on illegal immigration. Some GOP lawmakers say his move spotlighted a squabble within the party over a hot-button issue in an election year.
“We should have had a much more ambitious process of trying to build consensus and bringing people and different views together before we engaged in debate on the Senate floor,” Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) told reporters.
But grumbling about the majority leader and the decisions he has made were evident before the flap over immigration.
“People have noticed that the [Senate] agenda is driven, at least in part, by issues that he wants to have on the floor, to have accomplishments on,” said one senior GOP Senate aide.
He and several other aides discussed Frist on condition of anonymity, citing concerns of affecting work relationships. But their comments reflected the growing discontent with his performance.
The more pointed such criticism becomes, the more it could undermine Frist’s efforts to springboard to the White House.
“I don’t think that he’s made much of an impression outside Washington as a strong leader,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a leading advocacy group among Republicans.
Frist declined to respond to the criticisms, but his aides vigorously dispute them. They also contend that he has compiled an impressive list of legislative accomplishments that he will add to before November’s midterm elections.
Still, in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press, Frist seemed to suggest he would be glad to put his legislative career behind him.
Asked whether it would be hard to run a presidential campaign from his majority leader post, he replied: “Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”
He added that upon retiring from the Senate at year’s end, “You’ll see, as you do now, the real Bill Frist -- but unencumbered by having responsibilities of leading this body, which results in negotiated positions.”
Frist had pledged to serve only two terms when he first campaigned for his Senate seat in 1994. He stood by that promise even after his ascension to majority leader in December 2002.
In the months he has left in the post, Frist must pick his way through a political minefield of legislation in a fiercely partisan atmosphere that makes it hard to achieve results. A dispute over his motives in the immigration debate illustrates the difficulties confronting him.
His introduction of a bill restricted largely to cracking down on illegal immigration was widely seen on Capitol Hill as a bid to bolster his credentials with the GOP faction that opposes any steps toward legalizing undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t believe that Sen. Frist really seriously wants us to consider immigration reform,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. “He’s more intent on checking a box off of issues that came to the Senate floor this year than action. You can’t discount his presidential ambition -- it clearly is part of his political calculus at this point.”
Frist said he acted because he was determined to make progress on the issue. “I’ve got to keep the system moving,” he recently told reporters.
But he may have been out-maneuvered by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and a bipartisan group of senators who are pushing a bill that, along with beefing up border security, would allow millions of illegal residents to apply for citizenship.
After the immigration debate, Frist is expected to turn to other measures that play well with the GOP base, including proposed constitutional amendments that would ban flag-burning and define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Both amendments have failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to clear the chamber in the past, and both may fail again.
He also has promised to push for a permanent repeal of the estate tax, which has been reduced substantively under the Bush administration. Democrats might use a filibuster to block a permanent repeal.
Meanwhile, bills that are more mundane -- such as the spending measures that keep the government running -- might receive relatively little debate.
“Nobody is under the illusion that we will have substantial floor time for appropriations bills this year,” said a second senior GOP Senate aide. “Appropriations bills are not sexy; they do not get a lot of positive headlines for the majority leader.”
Frist’s focus on proposals that may not advance could lend credence to critics’ assessment that he has failed to effectively use his power to enact other legislative priorities for the GOP.
“I don’t think he’ll go down in history as one of the greats,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whom Frist succeeded as majority leader, recently told a Galveston, Texas, newspaper.
Lott declined repeated requests to elaborate on the comment.
Last year, Frist -- who is a surgeon -- became a target for attacks when, critics say, he appeared to offer a diagnosis based on a video of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband fought for the right to allow her to die.
He also raised eyebrows when he continued to push for Senate approval of President Bush’s nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, even after it was clear he did not have the votes to break a Democratic-led filibuster. Bush eventually named Bolton to the job on an interim basis during a congressional recess.
“I think the No. 1 trait of a successful leader is the ability to make the trains run on time,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group. Frist “has had a lot of legislative trains run into each other. His hair is always combed, he looks good on TV, but he doesn’t cut the mustard.”
This year, some Republicans worry that Frist has not delivered the legislative fruits that could help energize GOP voters -- some of whom are demoralized by the Iraq war and the steep federal budget deficit.
“This is almost April ... and what has the Senate gotten done?” asked a third senior GOP Senate aide.
He said the Senate, under Frist’s direction, spent much of the last few months rewriting lobbying rules and trying -- and so far failing -- to create a compensation fund for victims of asbestos exposure. Neither effort translates into accomplishments lawmakers can easily boast of in their districts, the aide said. “The first quarter is over, and we ain’t scored no points.”
Many conservatives fault Frist for not doing more to stem federal spending as the budget deficit soared.
“I think it is very important that he reconnect the Republicans on Capitol Hill with frustrated economic conservatives all across the country,” said former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who heads the conservative Club for Growth.
Frist’s staff members say these criticisms are unfair.
“You can only judge him by his accomplishments, not the arbitrary yardsticks thrown around here in the run-up to the presidential campaign,” said Eric Ueland, Frist’s chief of staff.
Ueland ticked off Frist’s successes: the appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices and half a dozen other federal judges whom Democrats had threatened to filibuster; an overhaul of the intelligence community; passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill; and a revision of bankruptcy laws.
Frist’s supporters say it is unfair to compare him with past majority leaders -- such as Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Republican Bob Dole of Kansas -- who specialized in building political consensus around controversial issues. His allies say increasing political polarization had altered the Senate by the time Frist became its leader. They also say Frist differs in style from most congressional leaders.
“He is a different creature” than the Senate is used to, said Amy Call, his communications director. “He pushes the system, tests the system, finds solutions and brings them forward.”
Whether those traits have served him well as majority leader is part of the disagreement over his record.
Frist -- a heart- and lung-transplant specialist whose website identifies him as: “Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D.” -- cultivated an outsider identity at the start of his Senate career. He had never been a committee chairman when the White House backed him to succeed Lott, who stepped down after he appeared to wax nostalgic for the segregation era at a birthday party for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
At the time, Frist’s medical credentials and his relative lack of legislative experience were billed as pluses; he was a fresh face who seemed above the usual political fray.
He brought a strong work ethic to the job, often using his BlackBerry to message other senators late at night. But many colleagues chafed at what they saw as his failure to abide by the Senate’s traditions.
Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, said Frist was probably unique as majority leader “in his lack of interest in the institution itself and lack of identity with, commitment to and understanding of it.”