Transcript of Washington Times interview with Sen. Frist
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he has the 51 votes needed to change Senate rules and make it easier for Republicans to overcome Democratic filibusters against President Bush’s judicial nominees, but he hopes such a change won’t be necessary.
“We need to restore the over 200-year tradition and precedent of allowing every nominee of the president who has majority support an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” Mr. Frist told The Washington Times on Thursday.
“It’s consistent with the Constitution, where we are as a body to give advice and consent, and the only way we can give advice and consent is an up-or-down vote on the floor of the Senate.”
Mr. Frist said he has not made a decision on whether he will force the rule change the first time that Democrats filibuster a nominee.
The Tennessee Republican is entering his second term as majority leader after having led his party to a four-seat gain in the Senate in November’s election. His first term was marked by a series of Democratic filibusters, varying from judicial nominations to the energy bill.
And although some on the right have criticized him for appearing to move too cautiously, he was willing to take some chances, including breaking with tradition by traveling to South Dakota to campaign against his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
On Election Day, Mr. Daschle was defeated by Republican John Thune, who helped expand Mr. Frist’s majority.
Judicial nominations and Social Security reform are the two dominant issues looming over the 109th Congress, said Mr. Frist, sitting in his Capitol office moments after 18 Democrats and one independent joined 53 Republicans to approve the most sweeping tort-reform measure in a decade.
Mr. Frist said that bill, which was stalled in the last Congress by Democratic filibusters, is an example of how this new Congress might be different.
“We started with a bill that has — as demonstrated by the vote a few minutes ago — strong bipartisan support yet in a different environment could not be passed,” he said. “With the 109th Congress, some new people and a new spirit and a commitment of leadership on both sides of the aisle, we had the first success.”
Mr. Frist said despite the filibusters, the past two years were marked by successes — including earning the title of “the most pro-family and pro-life” Congress in 30 years.
“We started with the partial-birth abortion; we did pregnant women being two victims; we did the ban on human patenting, which we did in the omnibus. We introduced marriage — or the Senate did — proactively, before the House did and before many people were talking about it.”
He said it remains to be seen whether the next two years earn the same title, but he said the agenda is pro-family.
“You’ll notice in the top 10 bills, S.8 was the Child Custody Protection Act. It’s a strong, pro-family bill. You’ll notice that Joint Resolution No. 1, which sends a signal, is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman,” he said. “That’s sending certain signals that we demonstrated in the last Congress we’ll deliver on, not just signals, not just posturing.”
Mr. Frist said that a major challenge this year will be passing a budget at the spending total proposed by Mr. Bush and that his goal is for the Senate to pass its version by March 21. He said the Senate can follow through on Mr. Bush’s call for a 1 percent cut in nondefense, non-homeland security discretionary spending.
“It has not been done in the last 12 years — and even before that, that’s how long I’ve been here,” he said. “And therefore, it is a huge challenge, it’s going to require leadership by the president and by leaders in our body.”
As for immigration reform, another of Mr. Bush’s agenda items this year, Mr. Frist said he does not have a set of principles at this point, but the issue likely will be pushed to next year.
“I’ll be supportive of at some time addressing it in this Congress. Given the fact that we only have 139 legislative days this year, it would be challenging to do, but again the timing hasn’t been set.”
He said he was pleased with passage of the Class Action Fairness Act, but was conscious of the more intractable issues facing the Senate and had blunt words for his Democratic colleagues.
Asked about the so-called “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to bar filibusters against executive nominations, Mr. Frist said that would be a “constitutional option.”
“The nuclear option is what they did to me last year when they changed the precedent,” he said.
But although he warned in the opening session that he is ready to employ the option, he said last week that he won’t necessarily do it at the first filibuster against a judicial nominee.
“The specific decision has not been made,” he said. “I’ve got some pretty clear alternatives to use and, again, I’ll just continue to appeal to the other side.”
Mr. Frist was unyielding in his criticism of Democrats, who almost without exception have opposed Mr. Bush’s Social Security reform proposals by saying the system is not broken and doesn’t need to be fixed.
“I think it is absurd for the other side of the aisle to argue that there’s not a problem,” he said. “I think it is absurd for the other side of the aisle to stick their heads in the sand and hide.”
Mr. Frist, who has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2006, would not speculate on his political future and the possibility of a 2008 campaign for president. Whoever is the candidate, Mr. Frist said he can’t predict how the campaign should be run, because “trying to predict in four years where the electorate’s going to be, I think, is impossible.”
For a complete transcript of the interview with Mr. Frist, click on www.washingtontimes.com.