Sen. Bill Frist, a second-term Tennessee Republican, is set to become the first medical doctor to hold the position of Senate majority leader.
Sen. Frist is the front-runner for the position vacated yesterday by Sen. Trent Lott. The Harvard-educated, Nashville-based heart doctor has performed more than 200 heart and lung transplants.
A prominent Republican voice on health care, Mr. Frist is a Bush ally who served as the president’s liaison to the Senate during the 2000 presidential campaign. Mr. Frist also headed the 2002 National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign organization that helped his party recapture the Senate in November.
Mr. Frist chose public service above medicine and ran his first political race against incumbent Democratic Sen. James R. Sasser in 1994. He spent more than $9 million, most of it his own money, to win the seat.
“He gave up implanting babies’ hearts to come to the United States Senate,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.
Mr. Frist keeps a medical bag in his Senate office and has used it on numerous occasions, including the tragic 1998 shooting in which two Capitol Hill police officers were killed. Mr. Frist rushed across the street from his office and performed CPR on the shooter, Russell E. Weston Jr., who lived, and aided officer Jacob Chestnut, who died.
When a man from his home state went into cardiac arrest outside his office building, he used a defibrillator to jump-start his heart. During a committee hearing, he came to the aid of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who was having trouble breathing because of an allergic reaction.
Mr. Frist is looked upon by some as a medical hero and serves as a medical missionary in Africa for the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.
During last year’s anthrax mailings to the Senate, Mr. Frist’s medical background helped bridge the communication gap between scientists and politicians.
The author of three books, Mr. Frist most recently wrote “When Every Moment Counts: What You Need to Know About Bioterrorism From the Senate’s Only Doctor,” published in March 2002.
Beth Harwell, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Mr. Frist will make an outstanding leader.
“He is someone who will step into the position to heal the wounds and will be the right voice for our party in years to come,” she said.
“He is one of the brightest, most dedicated and educated individuals I have ever watched. Whatever task he takes on, he shines,” she said.
The senator is also a pilot, and in 1999 guided a Cessna Caravan into war-torn Sudan to perform surgery on civilian victims.
Mark Tipps, a Nashville lawyer and chief of staff to Mr. Frist during his first two years in office, said the doctor “relishes challenges.”
“After doing a few hundred transplants, he realized that it was a wonderful and amazing thing helping one person at a time. But the thing about public policy and politics is, he had the chance to improve lives on a much larger basis, and I think he measures accomplishments in that way,” Mr. Tipps said.
Numerous colleagues yesterday lined up to support Mr. Frist in the special election set for Jan. 6.
“I believe Bill Frist is the person who is most capable to represent and express those views, and he deserves our support to become our next majority leader,” said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican and successor to Mr. Frist as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.