Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist is poised today to become the first Senate majority leader elected over the telephone, an unusual end to one of the strangest political sagas in the Senate's recent history.
Frist's first task will be to heal the Republican Party's wounds, old and new, racial and non-racial. His second will be to lead a wildly unpredictable and bitterly divided Senate. Some of that division could come from senior senators within Frist's own caucus incensed at the way Trent Lott (Miss.) was forced to relinquish the leadership as Frist campaigned to succeed him.
Three days after Lott, who will remain a senator, resigned as Republican leader because of a remark earlier this month about colleague Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign in 1948, the Senate's 51 Republicans will vote for a new leader during a conference call this afternoon. Frist is the only candidate for the job, despite concerns by many senators that he is too close to the White House.
Frist, first elected in 1994, would enter the job with less political experience and seniority than most past Senate leaders. Running the Senate over the next two years could be as tricky and delicate as the heart transplants Frist performed as a surgeon before entering politics nine years ago. While Republicans hold a majority in the 108th Congress, 51 members leaves them nine short of truly running the show.
In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to pass most legislation, and a lone senator can bring the chamber to a halt. Further complicating matters for Frist, his caucus will include several unpredictable mavericks, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Lott, who might seek payback for what friends said he feels was betrayal by Frist and the White House.
Frist's first priority will be quelling the uproar that Lott's remark provoked. Lott's comments, which snowballed into an avalanche of criticism for the Mississippian and many of his southern colleagues, have prompted a reexamination of the Grand Old Party's record on civil rights over the past three decades.
"I think it's important that we make it clear that we are interested in the people of African American origin and other minorities as well, and reach out and show that we have genuine concern and a plan for dealing with their interest," Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday.
On the same show, Hagel predicted the ramifications of the Lott controversy will have a "wide and deep" effect on public policy and politics in the months ahead.
Frist himself is already feeling the sting. Democrats are condemning Frist's own history, including his membership in the all-white Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville before he ran for the Senate, and probing his background to see if he can be portrayed as being insensitive to the plight of African Americans.
Democrats hope to capitalize on the Lott controversy by reviving several issues that will test the GOP's commitment to African Americans and other minorities. Democrats want to force action early on hate crimes legislation, which would mandate harsher penalties for crimes motivated by race, sexual preference or other factors, and tailor any new tax cuts to the poor.
Democrats are considering resuscitating legislation banning racial profiling and changing death penalty laws, which they feel discriminate against blacks.
Hagel said "there's no question" that President Bush will have to examine more closely the backgrounds of his judicial nominees, especially on civil rights matters, before sending them to the Senate. One casualty could be a renomination of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the federal appeals bench. Bush's first nomination of Pickering, a Mississippi conservative whose record on civil rights has been criticized by Democrats as unacceptable, lost in the Judiciary Committee 10 to 9.
On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who will be Frist's second-in-command in the next Congress, said Democrats will try to keep racial issues alive politically. "It's irritating," said McConnell, the incoming Senate majority whip. But it also is effective, according to strategists. Democrats win, on average, about 90 percent of the black vote in elections.
Republicans are working on an agenda designed to highlight their commitment to minorities without repudiating their positions on issues such as affirmative action, Republican sources said. Among the issues under consideration are school choice initiatives, greater assistance to inner-city charities and increased funding for other minority programs. The agenda is not expected to offer many new ideas, the sources said. Instead, old ones will be repackaged to show how they help minorities.
Bush and his senior adviser, Karl Rove, believe Republicans must generate new support from African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities to create a long-term governing majority. That is among the reasons Republican officials were so worried about the possible fallout from Lott's gaffe, and why White House officials made it clear they would not stand in the way of efforts to replace him as leader. Bush won 9 percent of the African American vote in the 2000 election, a smaller percentage than the 10 percent he won in 1994 and the 20 percent he won in 1998 in Texas gubernatorial elections.
Bush planned to focus on health care issues during the next two years regardless of who led the GOP in the Senate, and Frist's election could brighten the prospects for quick action, Republicans said. Frist and the Bush administration want to provide prescription drug coverage to the elderly, especially the poor, and find new ways to drive down the costs of medicine for younger Americans.
At the same time, Frist will have to fight the perception that he is a tool of the White House, Republicans said.
Several senior Republicans who will head committees have raised concerns that the White House orchestrated Lott's ouster. Republicans said incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), among others, were particularly incensed at what they saw as White House intervention in an internal Senate matter. A top Senate Republican aide said Frist will be scrutinized closely to see if he is fighting hard enough to protect the Senate's power in the lawmaking process.
Frist, a quick study by most accounts, will try to hit the ground running in January. But many Republicans privately questioned whether he can master arcane Senate rules quickly enough to avoid being outfoxed by Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), a clever tactician.
Frist is considered a skilled spokesman for the party, but that is a very small part of the job of the majority leader, who devotes much more time trying to muscle legislation through the Senate and negotiating with individual senators on the details. With Congress preparing to consider new tax cuts soon, there will be heavy pressure on Frist to perform early.
Initially, Frist is likely to rely heavily on McConnell, a relentless tactical fighter who for many years fended off new campaign finance laws despite heavy public pressure. Lott, who until his ouster was viewed as the best tactician among Senate Republicans, is unlikely to play a big behind-the-scenes role, despite his experience. But before long, Frist will have to prove he can handle the job himself, Republicans said.