- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

It was a chilly January night, with a warm fire crackling in S-230 of the Capitol, the suite of offices traditionally reserved for the Republican leader. Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, the newly elected majority leader, sat in those august surroundings, contemplating a cold-hearted decision — whether to cancel the long-scheduled January recess and keep the Senate working. Mr. Frist knew all too well that disrupting family winter vacations, foreign trips and travels to warmer confines would not sit well with his colleagues. Yet, the Senate had a backlog of unfinished business. Equally important, his party was now in charge.

Mr. Frist made his call. The Senate needed results, not rest. He cancelled the break.

His decision proved right, the first of many resulting in an impressive first seven months of achievement. In an institution sometimes known more for delay than decisiveness, Mr. Frist, a surgeon, hectored and cajoled the Senate into obedience. He used the skills of a surgeon to get the Senate to “heel.”

Skeptics first questioned if Mr. Frist’s lack of parliamentary experience in a closely divided and hyper-partisan Senate would result in gridlock and legislative failure. He proved them wrong, getting results in one of the most politically and procedurally complex institutions in the world.

Mr. Frist inherited a mess from former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, in January. Democrats were in no hurry to turn over the reins of power after losing the majority and did everything they could to block and frustrate Mr. Frist’s efforts to get the Senate back on track. As one White House aide said at the time, “Democrats not only want to stall this year’s agenda — they don’t want to deal with last year’s either.”

Yet, Mr. Frist pushed back hard against Democrats’ “slow walk.” Since January, the Senate passed the 11 remaining fiscal 2003 appropriations bills, a supplemental spending bill funding the war in Iraq and a budget blueprint for the year. Following that, lawmakers enacted an economic growth bill, the global AIDS initiative, a ban on partial-birth abortions, Medicare prescription drug legislation and made substantial progress on next year’s appropriations bills and energy policy.

Mr. Frist deployed three tactical/management steps that explain his success: 1) Insist the Senate pass a budget blueprint and do it on time; 2) reinstitute a practice Lyndon Johnson perfected — greater reliance and cooperation on committee chairmen; 3) set goals for Senate accomplishments each week and do not quit until finished.

Completing a budget blueprint was a critical first step. “It provided the framework for many subsequent pieces of legislation,” a Senate Republican leadership aide said. “Without it, we would not have passed a growth bill, Medicare reform, or made as much progress on appropriations.” Failure to pass a budget last year deprived then-Majority Leader Mr. Daschle a fiscal policy framework and disciplinary tool. “Not passing a budget was the beginning of the end for Daschle,” the Senate aide said. Mr. Frist would not repeat that mistake.

Second, Mr. Frist relies heavily on his committee chairmen. He meets with them at a regularly scheduled time every week. This practice is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s close coordination with committee chairmen described in Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate.” Mr. Caro notes that Johnson would try to clear problems with legislation before bills reached the floor — paving the way for smoother deliberation by the full Senate. It’s a sharp contrast to Mr. Daschle’s style last year, when he often denied committee chairs the chance to bring legislation to the floor in areas like Medicare, energy and the budget. “He preferred writing the bills in the cloakroom instead of the committee,” one former GOP leadership aide lightheartedly remarked.

Finally, Mr. Frist sets deadlines and sticks to them — practicing what former Chief of Staff Mitch Bainwol calls “results-driven scheduling.” Like an air-traffic controller, Mr. Frist slots legislation on a large calendar on an easel in his office. If a bill gets bogged down, he has another ready to fill the void. Mr. Frist transfers his operating room skills to the Senate floor schedule. “He has the persistence and focus of a surgeon,” one former Senate leadership staffer said. “He knows what he has to get done, the tools needed and time it will take. Then he sticks with it until it’s finished.”

Republicans created the “leader” position in 1925, to bring order to a growing institution electing senators on a popular basis after ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1914 (Democrats created the position in 1920). Yet, they gave the position a relatively weak leash to curb the prerogatives of individual senators. Despite these limits, Mr. Frist employs the precision, focus and discipline of a surgeon to improve legislative outcomes. The “heeling” is underway.

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