WASHINGTON—Just before the 109th Congress finally adjourned shortly before dawn on Saturday, retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist got some last-minute perks for his home state of Tennessee—and took a rhetorical beating from his colleagues.
Some Republicans heaped scorn on Frist for what they saw as his role in losing last month's elections. Others faulted him for fostering runaway federal spending. Some Democrats seemed to enjoy piling on Frist too. This was in stark contrast to two days before, when Frist's farewell speech won warm applause and even a hug from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Late Friday night House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said icily in a speech on the House floor that Congress' failure to pass nine of 11 appropriations bills, including one for returning soldiers' health care, "should be placed squarely at the feet of the departing (Senate) majority leader." The House passed its version of the bills, but the Senate did not.
The top-ranking Democrat on Lewis' committee, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, got more personal about Frist, a celebrated heart-and-lung surgeon before he entered politics.
Obey recalled Frist's effort last year to stop a Florida husband from removing a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, his comatose wife, noting Frist's assertion that Schiavo was not in a "persistent vegetative state" based on his diagnosis of her via video footage.
Obey also tossed in Frist's hands-on role in passing a lawsuit liability shield for pharmaceutical companies.
"I find it ironic that the Senate majority leader found time to publicly diagnose Terri Schiavo's case . . . to insert 40 pages of language into the defense bill last year indemnifying the entire pharmaceutical industry . . . but he didn't manage to find the time to schedule the appropriations bills on the Senate floor," Obey said. "And as a result we are here with this mess tonight."
Congress ended up passing a massive stopgap spending bill that continues federal funding at current levels until mid-February 2007.
The criticism surprised Frist and angered his aides.
"Dr. Frist has an exceptional record of service and these parting shots are not worthy of response, especially in light of the dignity and grace which has marked his tenure," said his communications director, Amy Call.
Frist managed to stick some pork for the folks back home into the final bills passed, however.
A sweeping tax, trade, Medicare and oil bill that passed early Saturday extended a sales tax deduction for taxpayers in states with no income tax. That helps Tennessee and Reid's home state of Nevada, as well as Washington, Alaska, Texas and Florida.
Tennessee hospitals, meanwhile, got help covering uninsured and under-insured patients. And songwriters collectively got an estimated $3 million tax break, something many constituents in Nashville—nicknamed Music City, U.S.A.—will appreciate.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a fiscal conservative and Budget Committee chairman, was furious at his party's leaders, including Frist, for signing off on a package he said would add $39 billion to the nation's debt.
"This is being done by the Republican leadership to the Republican membership," Gregg complained.
Turning on Frist, he said, "If I wanted to address this deduction for Tennessee, this $35 million, or I wanted to address this musical awards item, I'm not going to be able to do it. You just have to ask yourself how we, as a party, got to this point, where we have a leadership which is going to ram down the throats of our party the biggest budget-buster in the history of the Congress under Republican leadership."
Gregg said voters tossed Republicans from power last month "in large part because they were tired of our hypocrisy as a party on the issue of fiscal responsibility. And it would appear that their concerns are justified."
After a rough night finally ended with adjournment, Frist called his staff together for a toast. As he thanked them he teared up. Making reference to the Bible's 23rd Psalm, "The Lord Is My Shepherd," Frist told his aides: "You restore my soul."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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