Weakened Senate leader predicts he can reassert authority

Frist plans to overcome setbacks with votes on nominees, energy

June 05, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - With lawmakers returning from the Memorial Day recess, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, faces a crucial test of whether he can re-establish his authority after a rapid sequence of events that many say diminished his standing and exposed a lack of experience in congressional intrigue.

Adversaries, independent analysts and even some allies say the Senate leader was wounded by a compromise on judicial nominees achieved last month by a handful of Republicans who bucked him, including Sen. John McCain, a potential presidential rival in 2008. The damage to his image was made worse, they say, when Democrats blocked another important White House nominee just a few days after the judicial agreement.

"It is recognized that this gang of seven has weakened him," said Paul M. Weyrich, a veteran conservative activist and Frist supporter, referring to the Republicans who circumvented the majority leader to avert a showdown on prohibiting filibusters against judicial nominees.

As he darted between appearances at a NASCAR race and the Harvard Medical School over the Memorial Day recess, Frist acknowledged the criticism aimed his way in the aftermath of the judicial pact and the delayed vote on John R. Bolton, the nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations.

But in an interview, he said he believed his stewardship would be vindicated in the days ahead once he shepherded through pending legislation and judicial nominees. That should begin this week, he added, with votes on Janice Rogers Brown and William H. Pryor Jr., two federal appeals court candidates whose nominations had been filibustered by Democrats.

"The short-term evaluations, I believe, will prove to be shortsighted and wrong after we get judge after judge after judge after judge through, plus at least one Supreme Court nominee and an energy bill," Frist said after a lecture at Harvard, where he received his own medical education. "And we will get Bolton."

The majority leader said the judicial impasse would have never been broken had he not forced the issue by threatening to prohibit filibusters and engaged in an extended buildup to the vote, creating pressure for a compromise.

"Without that sort of leadership, there is no deal to be cut, there are no brokers to deal," he said.

Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, who was one of the seven Republicans who worked with seven Democrats to fashion the compromise, agreed.

"You have to look at things from the long point of view," he said. "We couldn't have reached the compromise but for Bill Frist having the courage to set a date, saying we are going to use the constitutional option. He was clearly prepared to call the roll and roll the dice."

Yet questions left by the judicial cease-fire - coupled with Frist's handling of issues such as his intervention earlier this year in the medical case of a brain-damaged Florida woman - have prompted some nervousness about him among Senate Republicans, though they express it privately for the most part.

The compromise also served as a reminder that Frist, who represents Tennessee, has just a decade of Senate experience - with no plans to stay beyond 2006 - and is a relative neophyte in the leadership arena, holding a job typically filled by students of the Senate. He won the post in 2002 when Sen. Trent Lott was forced to step down; Frist parlayed his service as Senate campaign chair into a major promotion.

"If you think of every other Senate leader, they have been creatures of Congress," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "They knew the institution. They cared about it. They wanted to make it work."

The filibuster fallout has also sparked a bit of impatience at the White House, where President Bush has been clamoring for an energy bill and took what some saw as a subtle jab at Frist in a recent news conference, when he criticized "the leadership there in the Senate" for failing to provide a vote on Bolton.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said that the remark was meant to refer only to the Democratic leadership and that Frist is a highly regarded Bush partner. "The president talks with him on a fairly regular basis, and he's someone we work closely with to move forward on our shared agenda," McClellan said.

Democrats say that if Frist has problems, they are of his own making. They saw his push against the filibuster as part of a calculated effort to deepen his appeal to conservatives in anticipation of a possible White House run and said his uncertain handling of the fight reflected his own unease with the idea.

"His presidential ambitions are pushing him to do things he is uncomfortable with," said Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Frist appeared to maintain his standing among conservatives, who commended him for his efforts to win votes on the judges while castigating McCain and the others who signed the compromise for undermining the majority leader.

"I've heard literally no one say, `Well, if we had somebody else as leader, this would have been done better,'" Weyrich said. "No one."

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