WASHINGTON—As he finishes his third year as Senate Republican leader and prepares to enter his final one, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is finding himself outmaneuvered, scrutinized and unable to lift his party out of a political slump.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating his stock sales, the Democratic Senate leader has started playing political hardball and senators in his own party are marching to their own tune. With President Bush increasingly unpopular and former House GOP leader Tom DeLay under indictment, senators and party strategists would like Frist to give the party some sense of direction. He's struggling to do it.
All this while he contemplates making a bid for the presidency in 2008.
"Frist has had a tough year," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who knows something about Senate leaders with White House aspirations—he ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.
Frist, a 53-year-old heart surgeon, gets credit for being "a good face for the party," in the words of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. But his generally non-confrontational style and his search for consensus between moderates and conservatives have many in his party demanding more.
"On a few issues, his voice needs to be heard personally, even if he can't deliver the votes," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "He needs to be personally engaged on issues, such as containing spending."
When Frist took matters into his own hands last week, however, his decision backfired. He joined House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in calling for a congressional investigation into how The Washington Post obtained classified information about covert CIA prisons overseas.
But Frist didn't consult his Senate colleagues, even leaving the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, unaware of the Hastert-Frist initiative, which they expected him to chair.
The next day, Roberts bluntly rejected Frist's request, saying that any such inquiry should be done by the Justice Department.
Frist also has been overshadowed regarding the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. The pivotal Senate role is being played by the "Gang of 14," a bipartisan group led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a possible rival for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, whose formation of the group in May prevented Frist from ending judicial filibusters. Conservatives still blame Frist for letting the group outwit him.
"Who's getting the attention? John McCain and the group of 14," said Bruce I. Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who has followed Frist's political career. "If constantly you're comparing who's the more effective senator, Frist looks like he's getting outflanked."
Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson rejects that suggestion. To the contrary, he argued, by "pushing the Senate to the edge," Frist forced the compromise that ended the filibuster of six lower-court judges and led to their confirmations.
One senior Republican senator, who asked that his name not be used so he could speak candidly, said Frist needs to come up with a forward-looking agenda even as he manages difficult issues such as Iraq and hurricane relief.
"We need a positive theme and we don't have one," the senator said. "We all want to support Bill, but there's a fog out there and we're hitting icebergs."
Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and an influential conservative in Washington, said 2006 for Frist is "the make or break year, not just for his performance in the Senate, but whether or not he will have anything to show for it as to why he should be elected president."
"His challenges are pretty daunting," Weyrich said.
The post of Senate majority leader is one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. The Senate minority holds significant powers to obstruct, and every senator can drive his or her own agenda.
"You have such tremendous responsibility," Stevenson said of the leader's job, "and so few tools to move the body."
Earlier this month, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada caught Frist by surprise, using a parliamentary maneuver to put the Senate into a rare closed-door executive session to discuss the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence about Iraq. Frist then drew more attention to the Democrats' ploy by angrily denouncing it as a personal insult.
"He's learned a lot about politics, but he still has a naivete about him," said Tom Perdue, a Georgia Republican strategist who managed Frist's first Tennessee Senate campaign in 1994.
Meanwhile, the SEC investigation haunts Frist. He provoked it when he sold stock in HCA Inc., a hospital chain founded by his father and brother, shortly before the stock price plunged in July.
Publicly, other senators dismiss the investigation as baseless, but privately they say it must distract Frist.
"It hasn't been a distraction," Frist spokesman Stevenson countered. "He has cooperated fully and he's confident that in the end he will be fine and that he will be shown to have acted appropriately."
Despite everything, Frist has had some Senate success.
Congress is on track to complete all of its annual spending bills on time for the first time in memory. The Senate this year also overhauled bankruptcy laws, placed greater restrictions on class-action lawsuits and passed an energy bill—all Republican priorities. And Frist was way ahead of Bush in calling attention to the potential dangers of avian flu.
Senators also deeply respect his humanitarian work as a doctor. Every year, without fanfare, he travels to Africa to help treat sick children. He's volunteered his services at veterans' hospitals. And when Hurricane Katrina hit, Frist grabbed his medical bag and headed for New Orleans.
"If I were grading him today, it would probably be a C-plus or a B-minus," said Lewis L. Gould, a historian and author of "The Most Exclusive Club: A Modern History of the United States Senate."
Reed, the former Dole operative, says Frist can recover in time to run for the GOP nomination in 2008. "He still has plenty of time to overcome it by putting some points on the board," he said.
Republicans look to Frist to help the party out of the political hole created by the war in Iraq, the response to Katrina, economic troubles, the indictment of a top White House aide of lying to a grand jury and the disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. GOP prospects took a turn for the worse Tuesday with Democratic gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey.
"We've had a bad period," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "But there are number of legislative initiatives that we need to be dealing with next year when we get back. If he wants to run for national office, obviously he needs to be perceived, one, as a strong leader and someone who has created a record of accomplishment in his time as leader."
Frist has vowed to leave the Senate after 2006. That will make him a lame-duck leader during a year when a third of Senate seats are up for election and when other senators with presidential ambitions begin charting their own courses.
That will weaken his hold over the Senate by removing the few political chits he could use to demand party discipline, including the ability to make committee assignments in 2007. And the proximity of elections will make it harder for him to forge consensus within his party, let alone with Democrats.
"Herding cats is one thing," Sessions said, "but herding cats in heat is another."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Frist
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