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Frist's Senate Leadership Faulted as Self-Serving

March 31, 2006|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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