Senate GOP Fears Frist's Ambitions Split Party

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

By pushing his way to the front of the volatile debate over immigration, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has reignited complaints that his presidential ambitions conflict with his leadership duties at times and put him at odds with his GOP caucus.

Frist (R-Tenn.) pointedly told the Judiciary Committee on March 16 that unless it produced a comprehensive bill by Monday, he would send his own proposal to the Senate floor. The committee worked overtime to comply, but Frist still arranged for his bill -- which places more emphasis on border security -- to draw several hours of debate before yielding to the committee measure as the vehicle for amendments and votes, which will start today.

Frist's tactics rankled some GOP colleagues who wanted more time to talk through the divisive questions of illegal immigrants, border fences, guest-worker options and other matters.

"We should have had a much more ambitious process of trying to build consensus and bringing people and different views together before we engaged in debate on the Senate floor," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said in an interview. "As majority leader you can't be single-minded. You've got to deal with a confluence of challenges and priorities, on behalf of the president, on behalf of the overall party and on behalf of the institution."

Frist's supporters say he balances his dual roles fairly and does not put his presidential ambitions ahead of his 55-member caucus's best interests. But some close observers in the Senate and elsewhere see a pattern in which he repeatedly veers right on contentious issues, which could boost his chances in a GOP presidential primary likely to include more centrist Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The immigration issue "is one in which his mark is designed to appeal to the party base," said congressional scholar Ross Baker of Rutgers University. "His caucus is elsewhere. There are a number of Republicans who favor some kind of guest-worker program," which Frist's bill lacks.

Frist did not unduly rush the Judiciary Committee, said his spokesman Bob Stevenson, and the senator's emphasis on tightening borders is in line with many colleagues' wishes. Frist wants to "initiate the debate from a platform of consensus . . . and move from there," Stevenson said.

Others say immigration is far from the only area in which Frist, a heart-lung surgeon, has either stumbled or angered colleagues in his three years as majority leader. A year ago he told the Senate that brain-damaged Floridian Terri Schiavo was not in a "persistent vegetative state," a declaration that pleased right-to-life activists but did not comport with autopsy results. When a Dubai company's proposed control of U.S. port operations prompted controversy, Frist initially called for a 45-day study but soon broke with President Bush's support for the deal.

"So much of what he has done, including Schiavo, the ports deal and now this [immigration], are clearly aimed at the Republican primary," Baker said.

Frist's GOP colleagues agree that his presidential hopes make his leadership job much more complicated, but some say he does not always act in his own best interest.

"I think that he's learning -- as he goes about trying to pursue a White House bid and continue to manage the day-to-day operations of the Senate -- that it's a great challenge," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. "As the leader of the agenda, he probably has to take positions and advocate things that are very much contrary to what he would do if he were just purely a candidate for the White House. . . . It's a very delicate and difficult tightrope to walk."

Asked if the Schiavo episode -- in which Frist announced his conclusions after viewing a home video of the severely handicapped woman -- was an example of a high-wire slip, Thune said: "Well, sure. You look at that, and there's a full range of issues where trying to get 51 votes in the Senate -- or in some cases 60 votes in the Senate -- probably puts you at some odds with the national constituency of some sort. And I think this immigration reform issue is a good case in point. It is extremely challenging to try to craft a position that would be helpful in a Republican primary and then to deal with getting 51 votes for that position here."

Another Republican senator, who would speak only on background to avoid a clash with the leader, was more pointed. "The immigration issue is poorly handled. He's obviously playing primary politics."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who backs the immigration bill that emerged from the Judiciary Committee, said he would have preferred that the Senate launch the immigration debate discussing the committee's bill rather than Frist's more conservative plan. "I think his legislative fix is wrong," Graham said, because it does not address guest-worker issues.

But Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), a likely rival for the GOP presidential nomination, said Frist's maneuvering on immigration "doesn't bother me at all. I want to see action."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company