Newly elected Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist brings to the table a reputation as a deliberate thinker, a recognized expertise on health care issues and a willingness to reach across the aisle even on issues opposed by others in his party.
For instance, when Republicans jettisoned President Clinton’s 1995 nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for surgeon general, Mr. Frist, a heart surgeon, joined Democrats in trying to salvage the nomination.
The atmosphere was charged with accusations by Republicans that Dr. Foster had performed abortions and complaints by Dr. Foster, who is black, that black nominees were held to a different standard. Mr. Frist ignored intense pressure from party leaders and supported Dr. Foster, a fellow Tennessean whom he had known for years.
Mr. Frist of Tennessee compared his decision back then to medicine.
“You make a diagnosis. You collect the information. You listen to both sides. You personally go down and look at the materials especially when you’re talking about the issue of a man’s credibility. I have done that,” he said in an interview shortly after the nomination.
Dr. Foster, who continues to practice medicine while teaching at Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University, said Mr. Frist’s courage will serve him well in his new endeavor.
“He bucked his own party to support my nomination. To me, that’s a testimonial. That tells me what he’s capable of doing in the future. It took courage for him to do what he did,” Dr. Foster said.
Mr. Frist was the chief fund-raiser for Republican Senate candidates in the last election.
Yet even Democrats whom Mr. Frist tried to help defeat appreciate his willingness to reach across the aisle.
“He authorized the first attacks of my re-election campaign against me, and I understand that,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, narrowly re-elected last month.
But Mr. Johnson regards Mr. Frist as “reasonably moderate for a Southern Republican, and I think there is an opportunity to work with him.”
Mr. Frist steps into a job that in the past has been held by longtime political operatives, like Mr. Lott and Bob Dole. Unlike them, Mr. Frist is relatively new to the political scene.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Mr. Frist founded Vanderbilt University’s organ-transplant center. His father founded what is now HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, which recently agreed to pay the Justice Department $631 million to settle accusations of health care fraud.
His successful 1994 run for the Senate defeating three-term incumbent Jim Sasser was his first try for office. Then 42, he had begun voting only six years earlier.
Even then, the heart surgeon touted himself as an outsider and someone who was fed up and ready to go to Washington to make changes. He vowed to serve only through his second term, which ends in 2007.
Telling a reporter during his campaign of the many crime victims he saw come into the hospital, Mr. Frist said, “When you’ve seen it enough, you want to do something about it.”
A conservative who opposes abortion and favors cuts in taxes and spending, Mr. Frist has nevertheless worked with Democrats on health and education issues, including legislation to reform Medicare, fight AIDS globally and give states flexibility in spending federal education funds.