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Medicare Victory Caps Senate Leader's Rookie Year

November 27, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On Veterans Day, the Senate was sliding toward the year's partisan low point. Democrats and Republicans were girding for a 39-hour talkathon on judicial nominations that would yield little more than gassy rhetoric, grist for liberal and conservative activists and ideological stalemate.

That evening, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee made a move, with bipartisan help, that would clear the way for one of the signature legislative achievements of the GOP-led Congress in 2003: enactment of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

With Medicare talks near an impasse, the rookie majority leader called House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) into his office for a meeting with two Democratic senators, John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, and, on the speakerphone, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). They cut a tentative deal that preserved a limited, but important, role for private competition to the government health program.

That set in motion a chain of events that will culminate in President Bush's signing of the Medicare bill into law, probably with the man he calls "Fristy" looking over his shoulder.

Frist "played a critical role," Breaux said Wednesday, the day after the Senate gave final approval to the legislation. "It could well never have happened had he not stood up and said, 'Look, we're going to settle this at the leadership level.' "

Passage of the bill capped an extraordinary first year as majority leader for Frist, vindicating Bush's faith in him as the best choice to take over the Senate during a leadership crisis that erupted in December after the Republican victory in midterm congressional elections.

But if the Medicare talks showed Frist's skill as a back-room deal-closer, the circus-like debate on judicial nominations that he organized simultaneously showed he also could be a full-throated partisan ringmaster. That has earned him the trust of many conservatives initially skeptical of the man who succeeded Trent Lott of Mississippi as Senate Republican leader after a national furor over Lott's apparent nostalgia for segregationist politics at a GOP senator's birthday party.

"I told him to his face, I was very much prepared not to like him. I thought he was going to be a majority leader that always tilted toward the liberals," said Paul M. Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Weyrich, in fact, briefly supported an alternative to Frist the day Lott stepped down. Now, Frist consults with Weyrich frequently, and one of the majority leader's aides sends him daily e-mail updates on Senate business. "I've been pleasantly surprised," Weyrich said. "He is doing as good a job as Republican leader as anybody I've seen."

Weyrich compares him favorably to Lott, Bob Dole of Kansas and Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, each of whom had far more legislative experience before taking the Senate's reins.

Frist's first year as leader has not been without missteps. He has been severely tested by Democratic resistance in a Senate that is split effectively 51 to 49, with 60 votes needed to cut off debate -- a tactic that can be used to stall consideration of a bill. Two votes short of that hurdle on an energy bill that spun out of control, Frist was forced to acknowledge this week that a filibuster had for the year killed a top administration priority.

He has also failed so far to secure final passage of seven out of 13 annual appropriations bills, leaving much of the government to run on autopilot nearly two months into the new fiscal year. That is at odds with Republican promises to restore budgetary order in Congress.

Some critics wonder whether Frist is too beholden to a White House that cleared the way for his ascendance, too willing to bend on legislative details when a presidential veto threat hangs in the air. Several lawmakers chafed, for instance, when Senate-approved positions challenging the Bush administration on regulations easing limits on ownership of TV stations and stripping many workers of overtime pay protection were dropped in recent days from a compromise spending bill. Both provisions faced veto threats.

"I think he's a nice man," Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of Frist. But in a dig sure to resonate in a chamber that prides itself on independence from the executive branch, Reid added: "He's working under a burden as the first majority leader ever to have been selected by the president."

Frist's allies responded that he was chosen by his 50 Senate GOP peers, not by the president. They insist that Frist has had as much influence with the White House as it has had with him, noting that the former heart-transplant surgeon was pushing for global AIDS relief long before Bush took up the cause.

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