Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) yesterday predicted passage of President Bush's $670 billion tax cut and pledged to support a Bush judicial nominee whose racial views have stoked strong protests from minorities.
In his first round of the Sunday television talk shows as the Senate leader, Frist, who took power after the downfall of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) over matters of racial sensitivity, promised unstinting support for Bush's aggressive domestic and foreign agenda. He said he would move to enact bans on the late-term procedures opponents call "partial birth" abortions and human cloning research and to pass limits on medical liability, but he did not commit to a prescription drug benefit under Medicare this year, saying it is "not my number one priority."
On the subject of Bush's tax plan, which has been criticized by half a dozen Republicans in the 51-49 Senate as too costly and ill-structured, Frist said, "I do think we will" have enough votes to pass it, possibly with reductions in the dividend tax cut Bush proposed and an increase in aid to states.
"At the end of the day, it will probably even be amended to some extent," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "But recognition by the American people, by the representatives in the United States Senate, that a jobless recovery today is one that just can't be tolerated means we need to act."
On the subject of U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering, a nominee for appellate judge who is the most controversial choice on a list of conservative Bush judicial picks, Frist said, "I receive his nomination gladly." He added, "I plan on supporting Pickering."
Bush's renomination of Pickering, after Lott's fall because of remarks about the segregationist campaign of former senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), stunned Democrats, who had already rejected Pickering when they controlled the Judiciary Committee. Democrats and civil rights groups say Pickering helped a defendant in a cross-burning case and was hostile to civil rights claims. They point to his past stands against interracial dating.
"I think this really lays bare the administration's real position on civil rights," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said on ABC's "This Week." "This exposes the Southern strategy clearly."
Frist said he plans no major alterations to the agenda because of the harm done by the Lott imbroglio. On NBC's "Meet the Press," he said he would seek to "not just pass a series of bills sort of reflexively that might say, you know, for this or against that, but to establish a dialogue that we in this country have not seen among our nation's leaders."
Frist defended his own civil rights record, which has been criticized by civil rights organizations. He said studies of his votes ignore actions such as "the fact I go to Africa once a year or twice a year to work with the African American community."
On Bush's tax-cut plan, the largest piece of which is the elimination of dividend taxes, Frist said it will win bipartisan support just as Bush's 2001 tax cut did. But he said aid to the states, unexpectedly omitted by Bush, may be added. "I think that the states are going to need some help as we go forward," he said, adding that the legislation "is not going to be able to be done in weeks." He said he would consider a 50 percent cut in the dividend tax as an alternative to Bush's plan: "I'm in the business of pulling people together."
Frist said there will be prescription drug legislation, though "I can't tell whether we're going to do it" this year. "I can say it's not my number one priority, but seniors and individuals with disabilities deserve the same sort of health care that people in the private sector get when it comes to prescription drugs."
Frist, a medical doctor, suggested he favors health care reforms that make both individual and corporate insurance premiums tax-deductible. "We need to level that playing field to get a greater incentive for insurance companies . . . to be able to offer policies appropriate for individuals," he said, also calling for refundable health care tax credits to benefit low-income Americans. Frist said he wants a "comprehensive vaccine bill" that encourages more production of bioterrorism antidotes.
Frist said he would not support a national moratorium on the death penalty, and he voiced support for the administration's policy of disarming Iraq and working diplomatically with North Korea.