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.

A less cheerful Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the intelligence committee, went to the press gallery. "I thought Halloween was yesterday," he protested. "This is all trick and no treat."

It was clear something was up after lunchtime, because a dozen Democrats took their seats -- an unusual number in the typically empty chamber -- to hear Reid's 20-minute stemwinder condemning the administration. Frist, catching on to the Democrats' plan, huddled in the back with GOP senators. Sen Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) tried to derail Reid. "Would the senator yield?"

Reid ignored him and, two minutes later, sprang his Rule 21 trap. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) leapt up to second the motion. The sergeant at arms was ordered to "clear all galleries." The lights were dimmed. Reporters were told to leave. The precautions were hardly necessary because the senators, rather than discussing sensitive information as Rule 21 envisioned, spent the next two hours bickering -- and rushing outside to give impromptu news conferences before the cameras. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) alone gave three in as many hours.

"Republicans are outraged," Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) reported. "I just ate lunch, and it's upset my stomach."

Frist, after his opening tirade, yielded the microphones to colleagues -- but then returned to denounce Reid a second time. Frist excused himself, saying: "I've got to go figure out what we need to do."

Through the glass door to the chamber, Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) could be seen sitting in the presiding officer's chair, looking puzzled. Reid could be seen sharing a laugh with two colleagues.

As lawmakers raced between the chamber and Frist's office, reporters surrounded Frist chief of staff Eric Ueland. "It was a nonstop rant to build up to a political stunt!" Ueland said of Reid. As he leveled these charges, Ueland turned in a 360-degree circle so that all the journalists could hear him.

"You're spinning!" one of the reporters observed.

By sunset the deal was struck, the lights went up again in the Senate gallery, and Reid went to the cameras to declare victory. Told about Frist's "slap in the face" remark, Reid stood in silence for a long time. "It's a slap in the face to the American people that this investigation has been stymied. . . . That's the real slap in the face."

Reid launched into a tirade nearly equal to Frist's -- until Schumer discreetly tapped Reid on the back. "Do you, my colleagues, want to say anything?" Reid asked.

"You said it all," Schumer answered.

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