- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Senate Republicans elected Bill Frist as majority leader yesterday by unanimous consent, marking what they hope will be an end to a contentious few weeks and opening a new chapter in the Senate.
"I pledge to take this opportunity to strengthen the institutional integrity of the Senate, and to work with members of both parties in both chambers to advance an agenda that makes the lives of all Americans more fulfilling," the Harvard-trained heart surgeon said after Senate Republicans elected him during an unprecedented telephone conference call yesterday afternoon.
Mr. Frist, first elected to the Senate in 1994, cited the need to support the war against terrorism, reinvigorate the economy, improve Medicare, address the prescription drug issue for seniors and "dedicate ourselves to healing the wounds of division that have been reopened during the past few weeks."
Mr. Frist, the only doctor in the Senate, replaces embattled Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, who stepped down from the post Friday. Mr. Lott bowed to pressure from both Democrats and Republicans over comments he made at a Dec. 5 gathering in honor of Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday. Mr. Lott expressed admiration for Mr. Thurmond's 1948 presidential run, in which the South Carolina Republican ran as a "Dixiecrat" in favor of racial segregation.
Mr. Frist's ascension to the Senate majority leadership post gives Republicans a fresh face. He is a well-liked leader, who puts forth a moderate image and seems to possess the ability to forge compromises. The Tennessee Republican is also recognized as an expert on the issue of health care.
"With the election of Bill Frist as our new leader, we can now focus our attention on the important issues facing our country," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. "Bill Frist is a unifying figure in our party."
"We're looking forward," said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican.
Mr. Frist will "be a different face than what we've had," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "I'm not criticizing what we've had, but I think Bill has kind of a more moderate record and a more moderate approach toward things, and I think that it's going to be very difficult to criticize him."
The new Senate Republican leader is a close ally of President Bush and served as the president's liaison to the Senate during the 2000 presidential campaign. He also chaired the 2002 National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign organization that helped his party recapture the Senate in November.
Because he is not as schooled in Senate procedure as the rest of the chamber's leadership, Mr. Frist is likely to rely on other leaders for help as he learns the ropes of his new job. "He has not been involved in the day-to-day negotiations of leadership, but he has a good team around him," said Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho yesterday.
Republican strategist and pollster David Winston said Mr. Frist could help Republicans gain ground and improve their party image on health care issues, much as Mr. Bush and other Republican lawmakers have done with the issue of education.
"If that same sort of shift could occur on the issue of health care, that would be a major positive for the Republican Party," Mr. Winston said. "And now we've got the person who's probably got the best stature on the issue, leading the Republicans."
But Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota said Mr. Frist's expertise on health care "cuts both ways." Mr. Dorgan said while Mr. Frist has "a substantial amount of knowledge" on the issue, he is also seen by many as having close ties to the health care industry, which could be a drawback.
Some Democrats yesterday praised Mr. Frist, but added warnings.
"Bill Frist is a wonderful person, a man of faith. A good leader, I think he'll be, and I look forward to working with him," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. "Unfortunately, these leadership jobs sometimes turn people more partisan than they should be, and I hope that's not going to be the case with Bill Frist."
"Personally I like Bill Frist," Mr. Dorgan said. "He has the capability of doing well, but only if he understands that the Senate is 51-49 and he's going to be required to work with Democrats."
Mr. Frist yesterday pledged to do just that, noting that the first call he made after being elected was to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Mr. Frist said he is "committed to work with him," along with other Democrats to make the next Congress one that is "positive, that brings people together and that is productive."
Democrats and Republicans alike said they don't see much changing as far as policy goes.
"I don't think Senator Frist's voting record seems all that different than Trent Lott," Mr. Dorgan said.
One Senate Democratic aide noted that while Mr. Frist "presents a moderate face," he is in fact "a very conservative member of the Senate."
"I'd say that he is a compassionate conservative and I would emphasize both words," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, adding that Mr. Frist is "brilliant and well-focused."
Democrats said that Mr. Frist like Mr. Lott before him will come under pressure from conservatives not to compromise too much with his liberal colleagues across the aisle.
"He's got a very conservative pocket to deal with, and he's going to come under a tremendous amount of pressure from the conservative members of his caucus not to go too far," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
Ken Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said Mr. Frist is "generally conservative and generally sympathetic on life and family issues," noting that he has supported a ban on partial-birth abortion and a ban on cloning human embryos.
The majority leader is the public face for Senate Republicans and is charged with controlling the flow of legislation and selecting which bills will hit the floor and when. The role allows for enormous bargaining power, which is essential in a closely divided Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to overcome filibusters and other delay tactics. The 108th Senate is composed of 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Yesterday, Mr. Brownback said he was calling for a special committee in the Senate to deal with race relations. He said he has spoken to Mr. Frist about it already and is sending him a letter on the topic.
Forty-two senators participated in yesterday's conference call. Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, made the official motion to elect Mr. Frist as leader, and it was seconded by Mr. Brownback. Mr. Lott also participated in the conference.

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