JACKSON, Tenn.—At stop after stop in his home state of country music and rhythm and blues, Sen. Bill Frist—the majority leader of the U.S. Senate—hears the siren song of higher office. From the boardroom of an all-black college to the head table of a county GOP dinner, Frist hears the same appeal: Run for president in 2008.
The presidential speculation, feverish in his home state of Tennessee, may seem preposterously early. But it's become a plot line in Washington that hovers over Frist's obligation as Senate majority leader to push President Bush's ambitious agenda into law, from changing Social Security to appointing conservative judges.
Frist both feeds and dodges the 2008 question. He says his decision is still two years away. Yet, on Friday, he was off to New Hampshire, a traditional early stop for presidential candidates.
With the self-assurance of the heart surgeon that he is, Frist leaves no doubt that he thinks it's wise to position himself for a presidential run.
"If I had closed the door on being majority leader, which I came close to doing, things would have turned out differently for the country on Medicare and some of the real issues that were there," he says. "So I'm going to be very careful not to close doors."
But in leaving the Oval Office door open, Frist has added a complication to his already difficult task of leading his party through what's likely to be one of the most demanding and contentious sessions in Senate history.
"It's got an up and a down side," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It creates suspicion about why he would pick one agenda item over the other. But ... his stature has grown. That's the test of any potential leader, is over time do you get bigger or do you get smaller? I think he's gotten bigger."
Frist is a rare figure in national politics. Before he was elected to the Senate in 1994, he was a successful heart surgeon who'd shown little interest in politics. (He didn't vote until he was 36 years old.) He came from an old Tennessee family with roots in the political establishment; his father was the physician for a series of Tennessee governors.
Frist was the first physician elected to the Senate in 50 years. He became something of a hero when he rushed to the House of Representatives in July 1998 to attend to the wounded after a shooting left two Capitol police officers dead. He made health his main issue while positioning himself for leadership by chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In 2002, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi stepped down after sparking a public-relations disaster by voicing pride that his state had voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign for president, in which Thurmond advocated racial segregation. Frist became Lott's consensus replacement. At home, he likes to joke that he was selected leader because "my colleagues wanted a doctor on call around Dick Cheney all the time."
He says he won't seek re-election in 2006. That would free him from the leadership yoke if he were to seek the presidency. It also has invited speculation that Frist has planned his rise in politics all along, which he rejects.
"People will always be trying to figure this out, thinking there is some thought in the back of my mind that I decided back when I was doing heart surgery to spend 12 years and get your timing right ... and that's why I'm leaving. None of that's right," he said.
As Frist sees it, he has less than 750 days to push his agenda, Bush's agenda and the Republican Party's agenda through the Senate. It's an ambitious goal made all the more difficult by conservatives who insist on prompt action, moderates who urge caution and Democrats who, at any moment, can get in the way.
Nothing illustrates those difficulties more than Bush's plan to pay for individual investment accounts with revenues that now flow into Social Security, and Bush's decision to resubmit to the Senate seven judicial nominees whom Democrats blocked during his first term.
While Frist has lent support to Bush's Social Security plan, he's made it clear that the burden of selling it rests with the president. Indeed, during two days of travel in Tennessee earlier this month, Frist rarely raised the subject.
"Social Security will be interesting," he said. "I don't know what the outcome is going to be. Even with (Bush's) bold leadership, it's hard to get politicians to buy into it. That's a good example where he has got to lead."
On controversial judicial nominees, however, Frist shoulders the burden. Democrats have threatened to employ the filibuster—unending debate that can be shut off under Senate rules only by 60 votes—to block seven nominees.
Conservatives are pressuring Frist to quash any potential filibuster by changing longstanding Senate rules to permit only 51 votes to shut off debate. Republicans hold 55 of the 100 Senate seats and Frist could change the 60-vote rule with a simple majority vote. But if he does that, Democrats vow to obstruct every bit of Senate business indefinitely.
This looming showdown threatens to disrupt relations in the Senate so profoundly that senators call it the "nuclear option."
It's not clear, though, that Frist could get 51 votes to change the 60-vote filibuster rule. Several veteran Republican senators have voiced qualms about abandoning the Senate's cherished tradition of permitting unlimited debate to protect the views of the minority.
But the issue is especially important to religious conservatives, who are important to the Republican Party's base. Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, laid down a clear challenge to Frist on it last month in a speech at the National Press Club.
"It is the ultimate test," Robertson declared. "He cannot be a leader and allow Democrats to do what they did in the last session."
Frist, who said he's consulted with constitutional scholars and past Senate leaders, isn't showing his cards on the question. So far this year he's tried to avoid antagonizing Democrats by bringing up legislation that had bipartisan support. And he's praised Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada for striking a cooperative tone.
"There are going to be tough, tough times," Frist said. "But both he and I agreed we ought to start with (bipartisan) bills. We should try to bring people back together."
Frist concedes that he must earn the trust of Democrats. Many of them resent him in part because he campaigned against former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's bid for re-election in South Dakota last fall, which was unprecedented. Daschle lost.
"There is a real distrust on their side of me, I think," Frist said. "I did some things that people said were unprecedented, like going out to South Dakota. So I'm sure a lot of them resent that ..."
Frist also led the Republican Senate Campaign Committee in 2002 when a GOP campaign ad against Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran, suggested that his opposition to a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security was tantamount to support for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Can Frist work now with Senate Democrats?
In an interview, Senate Democratic Leader Reid initially said: "I trust him and until something happens, I'll continue to do so."
Upon being reminded of the Cleland campaign, however, Reid paused, then added: "That's true; shouldn't have reminded me of that."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Bill Frist
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