Mad About You

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

In the genteel club that is the United States Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had a screaming temper tantrum yesterday.

Minutes after his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid (Nev.), used a surprise parliamentary maneuver to throw the Senate into a rare closed session, Frist burst from the chamber and approached the cameras in the hallway.

Without counting to 10, as anger-management experts recommend when you are very, very mad, Frist exploded.

"About 10 minutes ago or so, the United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership!" he announced. Never, he said, have "I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution." Epithets flew from his mouth: "They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas. This is a pure stunt."

Frist was now sputtering. "This is an affront to me personally. It's an affront to our leadership. It's an affront to the United States of America!" Turning sorrowful, he vowed that "for the next year and a half, I can't trust Senator Reid."

"Mr. Leader," one stunned journalist observed, "I don't remember you being so exercised over something before."

"You've never seen me in heart surgery," the senator, a transplant specialist, replied.

Dr. Frist's patients -- not to mention the Tennessee medical licensing board -- may be surprised to learn that he had operating-room rage. But his reaction to Reid's provocation was predictable.

The Senate follows a strict script, written by the majority leader himself, who decides what legislation will be debated and who will speak when. But yesterday, using the arcane provisions of Standing Rule 21 for the first time in 25 years, the minority party seized the agenda and forced the chamber to close its doors until Republicans agreed to a probe of how the administration handled prewar Iraq intelligence.

Democrats did not deny it was a stunt: a brazen effort to change the subject from the Supreme Court confirmation of Sam Alito, which Republicans prefer, to war deaths and Scooter Libby's indictment. "Alito had his day," a Democratic leadership aide said as the chamber dissolved into confusion. "We're going back to our story."

It was a cheap trick -- and it worked brilliantly. Reporters dropped their stories about Alito and covered the melee in the Senate. CNN titled the episode "Congress in Crisis." MSNBC displayed a live shot of a mostly empty hallway outside the Senate chamber and a clock showing elapsed time since the Senate went into closed session.

Republicans knew they were licked. They agreed to set a schedule for the long-delayed intelligence committee investigation Democrats demanded. "Today, the American people had a victory," Reid declared.

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