- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Sen. Bill Frist has a full agenda as he officially begins his tenure as Senate majority leader today, aiming to pass key legislation in short order.
Congress, generally pretty quiet until after the State of the Union address in late January, will move to pass a bill extending unemployment benefits in the next few days, then move on to passing the held-over appropriations bills from last year.
"The most important thing we talked about is what we can get done here very quickly," said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, after a closed-door meeting yesterday with Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, who made no public comment yesterday.
"The leader is intending to bring an unemployment-insurance [bill] to the floor, to act on it, and get it to the president this week," Mr. Santorum said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said if the bill can be passed in Congress and signed by the president by Thursday, then the flow of unemployment-benefit checks will be "seamless."
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Frist is now negotiating the exact details with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, but Mr. Frist and the president are both committed to getting a bill done this week.
The original Senate version of the unemployment-compensation extension bill was only 12 weeks, but Mr. Santorum said the final version of the bill might stretch out benefits into May. That would be more in line with what Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed last year in their version of the bill.
After the unemployment-benefits bill is out of the way, Mr. Frist will lead the Senate in passing 11 appropriations bills held over from the last Congress.
"We need to get these done," Mr. Santorum said. "These are, basically, bills that the Democratic chairmen of the subcommittees wrote, just a little lighter. We didn't substantially change these bills other than take a little money out to meet budget requirements. Hopefully [Senate Democrats] will be willing to pass their bills in the next few weeks."
In addition to dealing with expected Democratic resistance on President Bush's $600 billion economic-stimulus package, appropriations bills, and perhaps even the unemployment benefits, Mr. Frist will likely receive flak from conservative Republicans as the year progresses. Some conservatives in the House are already starting to grumble.
The Senate is more apt to compromise than the House, often leaving conservative agenda items out of final legislation. Mr. Frist's new colleagues in the Republican leadership, however, feel he is more than up to the job.
"He's an incredibly smart man, an incredibly hard worker, and he's someone who becomes very quickly prepared to handle the situation he's thrust into," Mr. Santorum said. "He's shown to be a quick study on [being majority leader].
"He's acting the way a leader should act, and he's doing so with the dexterity I would expect a surgeon to have," he said.
Senior Senate staffers said Mr. Frist is widely respected in the Republican caucus as a man who sticks by his word, listens intently to colleagues from both parties, and is a tough negotiator.
"Senator Frist has a kind of stamina others don't have," said one high-level Senate staffer who has worked closely with Mr. Frist's office. "Folks better be prepared if they go into negotiations with him. He'll be the last one standing."
But Mr. Frist will also stick to his guns, even if it means bucking the traditional party line on an issue.
He will take the lead on the Republican version of Medicare reform and prescription-drug coverage. Many conservatives want to hold the line and prevent the creation of a new entitlement, but Mr. Frist is advising his fellow Republicans to "get on board."
"It's important for Republicans to embrace Medicare reform and realize that we need a prescription-drug plan," said an aide to Mr. Frist. "He's telling freshmen [senators], get on board with a plan right off the bat."

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