The following are excerpts of a Feb. 9 interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican:
Mr. Frist: The 109th Congress gives us a great opportunity — us meaning the institution of the United States Senate — to start afresh and work together to move America forward to do exactly what the American people want us to do and that is to govern with meaningful solutions. We started with a bill that has — as demonstrated by the vote a few minutes ago — strong bipartisan support yet in a different environment could not be passed.
With the 109th Congress, some new people and a new spirit and a commitment of leadership on both sides of the aisle to work together, we had the first success. We started with the lawsuit abuse system with tort reform because it is a major initiative of this Congress — or this Senate — and this president. It will be the first of a number of legal and tort issues that I hope that we will be able to address, the first one being tort reform the second being bankruptcy, another issue that should have strong bipartisan support, yet the Senate has been unable to pass it in the last three congresses.
Then we’ll move into another huge issue that is the focus of the president and us and that is passing a budget that shows strong fiscal restraint. The American people had this impression that Congress spends like drunken sailors and we demonstrated in the last Congress that with non-security, non-defense issues that we could really have flat growth, yet the American people didn’t really feel it. In this Congress, it will be demonstrated by our actions that non-security spending will be fiscally responsible in ways that, at least, I haven’t seen since I’ve been in the United States Congress. …
The two overriding issues that are ongoing. yet aren’t on the floor, are Social Security, a major agenda item for the president and a major agenda item for this Senate, but one that is going to take much more engagement of the American people. And, therefore, for the timing of that — in terms of coming to the floor — I can’t predict, although I can tell you that every day meetings are being held in this office and really all over the Capitol on Social Security to engage members of the Senate and to hopefully engage the American people.
And the second big issue that is sort of dominant for the body that hasn’t yet reached the floor is judges and we can come back to the specifics of that. But in this Congress, I believe that we need to restore the over 200-year tradition and precedent of allowing every nominee of the president who has majority support an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate. It’s consistent with the Constitution, where we are as a body to give advice and consent and the only way we can give advice and consent is an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate.
Schedule-wise, let me just go back real quickly and lay out the next — from an agenda standpoint — the next, say, three months. We’ll start with these tort and legal or lawsuit abuse issues. The first one will be class action. We’ll move to bankruptcy, not this week but the next week. It is going through regular order in that, although the bill has overwhelming bipartisan support, we’re taking it back through committee so there were hearings today. It will be marked up in committee next week. And then, at the appropriate time, it will be taken to the floor, probably after the next recess.
Next week, I will move to addressing … the healthcare agenda. So, I hope to take the genetic non-discrimination bill, which is a bill I began working on six years ago, no seven years ago, that should be a bipartisan bill. We’ll take that to the floor next week. The first order of business, obviously, has been to address the president’s cabinet nominees and we will complete those with [Homeland Security nominee Michael] Chertoff probably Tuesday of this week. And then we’ll move into the phase of bankruptcy not this week but the following week, actually the first week back from recess.
And then we’ll move into the budget, which I hope to be able to complete by March 21st — a tall order given the fact that we passed a budget in the Senate last year but it got stuck in conference. A budget that is this fiscally responsible, I would say — meaning it’s tough — it’s going to be a challenge, but we’ll pass that. It’s absolutely critical that we pass the budget in the framework this year in order to have an orderly appropriations process. That is a goal for both [Minority Leader] Senator [Harry] Reid [Nevada Democrat] and for me and for the House of Representatives, a goal to have a step-wise, orderly appropriations process rather than resorting to what has become the norm and that is these giant omnibus bills at the end.
Q.: If you have to resort to the nuclear option —
A: Constitutional option. The nuclear option is what they did to me last year when they changed the precedent.
Q: The constitutional option is going to, nonetheless, be upsetting to the other side. How concerned are you about having the comity be disrupted right now and do those concerns make you want to put off these nominations?
A: No, but the implication is right. The judicial nominees we’ll take back through committee. And, so, although the president’s past nominees — or the majority of them — have been resubmitted, they do have to go back through committee so it’s an issue that needs to be addressed early on. The comity and the working together and the commonsense approach we’ve taken on class action, I hope, and will work hard to see that it happens, continues through many other bills, whether it’s the bankruptcy bill as well as consideration of the judges. Now, to me, that means: Let’s restore the tradition of 200 years, the tradition we had up to the last Congress, which is the precedent. So I will continue to appeal to the other side of the aisle in that regard. Let’s extend the good working relationships we have and vote against them if you want to but give us the opportunity to vote them up or down.
Q: Do you have the votes for the constitutional option at this point?