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Frist's Setbacks as Senate Leader Imperil His Presidential Bid
Bloomberg
December 23, 2005

Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last week rejected anything less than a full renewal of the Bush administration's anti-terror legislation. He said he had "made it very clear" he wouldn't accept a temporary extension of the USA Patriot Act, as Democrats were demanding.

Six days later, after threatening to allow the law to lapse, Frist accepted a short extension of the law. The Republican leader was forced to swallow that reversal because eight members of his own party had joined with Democrats to support an extension.

The Dec. 21 defeat capped a year of setbacks for Frist, whose leadership has been weakened by a series of missteps, divisions within his own Senate Republican caucus and a probe of his stock trades by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most Capitol Hill observers now regard Frist as "the weakest majority leader in perhaps 50 years," said Charles Cook, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.

This performance has taken a toll on his presidential aspirations in 2008, once regarded as promising. Earlier this year, Republican activists such as Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, had called Frist a serious contender. Now, said Cook, "I don't think he has a snowball's chance in hell."

The Patriot Act extension was just one of several defeats for Frist this week on issues that are top priorities for President George W. Bush, who played a major role in Frist's ascension to the majority leader's post three years ago.

Alaska Oil Drilling

Senate Democrats, with the support of three Republicans, blocked a bid to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A $39.7 billion package of cuts to federal benefits programs -- less than Republicans had initially asked for -- passed only after Vice President Dick Cheney, acting in his role as president of the Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote.

Earlier in the year, Frist wound up on the sidelines as seven Republicans joined with an equal number of Democrats to strike a deal clearing the way for the confirmation of some judicial nominees. The May agreement ended Frist's effort to eliminate the use of the filibuster, a tactic to block votes, against federal court nominees.

Frist's expertise as a physician was called into question when he told senators in March that his review of video images suggested Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman, was "not somebody in a persistent vegetative state." After a court battle over whether to keep her alive ended with her death, an autopsy found she had been blind and had a severely atrophied brain.

Stem Cells

In July, Frist reversed his earlier position and split from Bush by supporting expanded U.S. funding to study embryonic stem cells as potential treatments for disease. Bush and some Christian groups favor limiting the research, citing moral concerns because embryos must be destroyed to harvest the cells.

A world-class heart surgeon, Frist had little political seasoning before ascending to the leader's position. His successful 1994 run for the Senate was his first bid for office.

Frist has struggled to navigate dual roles as leader and presidential aspirant, and his higher ambitions were clouded in September when the SEC began a probe of his decision in June to sell shares in HCA Inc., a hospital chain founded by his father and brother. The sale, completed by July 1, came weeks before the company issued a second-quarter earnings estimate that failed to meet analysts' expectations, pushing down HCA's stock price.

Frist, who held his shares in a Senate-approved blind trust, has said he is sure he will be cleared. The investigation is likely to extend well into next year, hampering his efforts to be seen as a top-tier presidential contender. Frist said on "Fox News Sunday" Dec. 11 that he still hadn't testified before SEC investigators, and since then has declined to answer questions about the matter.

Presidential Prospects

Frist this year traveled out of Washington several times for weekend visits to the early presidential primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who preceded Frist as majority leader, said he advised Frist not to attempt to hold the leader job if he wanted to run for president, because so many past Senate leaders -- including Lyndon Johnson, Howard Baker and Bob Dole -- tried and failed.

"I told him from day one that I thought he was making a mistake going into the majority leader position if he wanted to run for president," Lott said. "You can't do it." Frist toppled Lott as majority leader in 2002 after Lott praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for president.

Some Support from Colleagues

Many Republican senators say they give Frist credit for pushing some key legislation through the Senate. They also say he faces enormous pressure in an increasingly partisan Senate.

"He's done a good job in a tough situation," said Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and another presidential aspirant. "It's a difficult environment."

As the Senate wrapped up its work for the year Dec. 21, Frist told lawmakers that Republicans fulfilled many of their goals. "It's been an intense and productive year for the United States Senate," Frist said.

Under Frist's leadership this year, Republicans took advantage of their gain of four Senate seats in the 2004 elections, bringing the Republican Senate majority to 55 of 100 seats. Frist pushed through business-backed measures, including legislation moving most class-action lawsuits to federal courts, a measure overhauling bankruptcy law, energy legislation, and a measure expanding trade with Central America.

The Senate also confirmed John Roberts as U.S. chief justice and three Bush appellate court nominees that Democrats blocked in the last session of Congress. Senators this week approved $3.8 billion for avian influenza vaccines and lawsuit protections for drugmakers who produce the vaccines, after Frist personally demanded it be added to a $453 billion defense spending bill.

Deficit, Tax Cuts, Social Security

Still, Frist wasn't able to secure passage of the Republicans' major domestic initiatives: the president's proposals to restructure Social Security, extending most of the tax cuts and narrowing the $319 billion budget deficit, analysts said.

Next year, Frist can expect more problems keeping Republicans in line, because it's an election year and the Senate's agenda includes a host of issues that divide the party. Frist has promised Republicans who support stem-cell research that the legislation will receive a vote early in the year, and he has also promised a vote to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

In addition, he has promised a debate on legislation to improve security at U.S. borders and to create a "guest worker" program for illegal immigrants.

"The real problem he faces is that 2006 is an election year, and he will be a lame-duck majority leader," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "His capacity to put together deals in the Senate will be limited by the fact that he has nothing to bargain with."

To contact the reporter on this story:
Laura Litvan in Washington at  llitvan@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: December 23, 2005 00:06 EST

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