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Senate's Frist deft at dodging stalemate

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In the closing hours of the Senate's summer session last week, as his party's high-priority energy bill languished on the floor and his colleagues were locked in a bitter deadlock over federal judges, Majority Leader Bill Frist watched as his plans for a major legislative achievement seemed to unravel.

Then, in an extraordinary turn that surprised Republicans and Democrats, lobbyists and aides, the Tennessee Republican simply backed off his intense efforts to pass the GOP energy measure and instead agreed to Democrats' calls to pass their energy package from last year, a bill that died in the House.

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Some called the move a stroke of genius, while others dubbed it a desperate compromise. Whatever the case, the move freed the measure from stalemate and allowed it to advance to a House-Senate conference, where Republicans believe they can reshape it to their liking.

This curious midsummer gambit highlighted the substantial challenges and still-uphill battle Frist faces in his rookie year at the helm of the unruly Senate.

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Charged with pushing Bush's conservative agenda through a chamber Republicans control by only two seats, Frist often has to take what he can get in the way of legislative deals in order to keep the trains running. He also has to be fast on his feet.

Last week's energy deal cleared the way for the quick resolution of the dozens of other last-minute items that remained before senators could depart for their monthlong August break. It also ensured that a measure called the "energy bill" -- albeit not the one Republicans wanted -- will be sent to a House-Senate conference for a final deal, rather than being tied up indefinitely in the Senate, further forestalling enactment.

The old energy bill passed late Thursday night by a vote of 84-14, leaving Democrats to boast that they had outsmarted a flailing Frist and forced him to compromise. "They made us an offer that we couldn't refuse: the Democratic bill we passed last year," Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters.

Take the credit

In a tongue-in-cheek release Friday, Democrats offered to let Republicans take credit for all of their ideas -- including legislation to raise the minimum wage, outlaw hate crimes and give low-income families left out of this year's tax cut an increase in the child tax credit -- simply by slapping the names of GOP senators on the measures.

"If Republicans were prepared to declare victory over passage of a major Democratic bill once, why stop there?" said the document, released by Daschle's office.

Republicans countered that they were the ones who had outmaneuvered their opponents. With the GOP set to dominate House-Senate negotiations over a final energy bill, strategists said, Republicans are well-positioned to resurrect favorite elements of their abandoned bill and enact them anyway.

"They took the best deal they could get," Frist said of the Democrats. "They can say they won, and I know that we won, because I can tell you what the bill's going to be like."

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It is a strategy that Frist has employed more than once since taking the top Senate post in January after Trent Lott of Mississippi stepped down amid a furor over remarks that some said celebrated segregation. In several instances this year, Frist has angered fellow Republican conservatives or moderates -- and sometimes both -- in the interests of pushing a middle-ground measure through the Senate and to conference.

Once there, the more conservative House leadership -- which enjoys a more substantial advantage in seats over the Democrats than do Senate leaders -- can employ its muscle to fashion a distinctly more right-of-center final product.

"What happens here [the Senate] is almost immaterial," said a top aide to Frist. "We'll do what we need to do to get to conference."

The strategy is a notable one in a chamber that is sometimes called the world's greatest deliberative body. The Senate, free of the strict time and amendment limits that bind the more businesslike House, is known for whiling away weeks in prolonged debate on policy issues before acting on them.

But Frist's approach elevates the importance of the House-Senate conference -- which has always been a pivotal stage in crafting legislation -- almost beyond that of Senate deliberation. "What goes wrong on the Senate floor can go right in conference," the Frist aide said.

The strategy has allowed Frist to claim a list of accomplishments -- including a tax-cut package, a Medicare prescription drug measure and, this week, a comprehensive energy bill -- that matches Bush's legislative wish-list.

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Still, the action can come with a cost. On the tax-cut measure, Frist was excoriated this year by House Republican leaders for cutting a side deal with Senate moderates to hold the final tax reduction to no more than $350 billion.

To move the Medicare measure through the Senate, Frist abandoned some provisions advocated by conservatives that would have moved Medicare more aggressively toward a private-sector model. The House measure contains such items, which many Republicans hope will be in the final package.

By agreeing to pass last year's energy legislation, Frist said Friday, he helped ensure that Congress will deliver the president a measure that "will be, in essence, a Bush-Domenici-Tauzin energy bill." (He was referring to the Republicans who will lead the House-Senate conference, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who heads the Energy and Commerce panel.)

Lobbyists pushing to get a final energy overhaul cheered the result. "Frist is still basically in his first year on the job here, and certainly he may have wanted to handle things differently," said Frank Maisano, an energy consultant at Bracewell and Patterson. But Daschle's offer to accept last year's bill was "almost like being handed a winning lottery ticket."

Such compromises can be the price of doing business in a Senate as closely divided as this one, observers say.

Frist "counts, and he looks at what he's got, and then he's exceedingly willing to compromise very quickly," said James A. Thurber, a government professor at American University. "He's learning on the job."

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Judicial debate

Last week, the issue of judicial nominations appeared to make the delicate task of getting things done in the Senate that much more difficult.

Furious that Democrats have been blocking votes on the confirmation of a handful of Bush's more conservative judicial choices, Frist gave notice last week that he would hold a series of votes to force action on the nominations of Miguel A. Estrada, Priscilla Owen, William H. Pryor Jr. and Carolyn Kuhl.

The debate over Pryor, the Alabama attorney general, has become particularly nasty, with Republicans contending that Democrats are opposing him because he is Catholic. Democrats angrily denied the accusation.

Democrats demanded that they be given time to debate the nominees before the votes and threatened to block action on the energy bill in light of the dispute. The resulting exchange amounted to what Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, called an "ugly scene" that he said embarrassed the Senate.

"We seem to be spiraling downward" on judges, said Lott.

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Republicans denied that the votes on judicial nominees had any role in stalling the energy bill, but privately some acknowledged that the polarizing debate on judges was likely to destroy any hope of completing action on the measure.

"There was nastiness thrown into the water when the judicial issue reared its ugly head, and Frist didn't realize that the Democrats had reached their tipping point," said an aide to one Senate Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's learning that politically, there are certain things he just cannot touch if he wants to get anything done."

But on Friday, Frist showed no signs of backing off on the issue of judges and Democrats' strategy of filibustering them.

"We're going to continue to fight it, we're not going to give up," he said.


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