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The 108th Congress convenes today with a new Senate majority leader, Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, a surgeon turned politician. Senate Republicans chose Frist to replace Trent Lott of Mississippi last month after Lott made remarks interpreted as nostalgia for segregation. Considered a White House favorite, Frist projects a more modern image of the South and a more moderate image of his party. But not everyone believes that image reflects the reality of Frist’s voting record and views. NPR’s Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
When Bill Frist ran for Senate in 1994, he was a self-styled citizen senator, a regular guy going to Washington to do some good and come home. He spoke with NPR just days before he took the Oath of Office and said he felt like an outsider, even though there were 11 new senators that year.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): In my first meeting, as I looked around the room, I started saying, ‘You know, I think I’m the only outsider here.’ Seven are from Congress and one a governor and two have worked in Washington as high-level aides, and then there’s me. And I think there’s a real advantage in that, and that is what I ran on, the whole concept of citizen legislator, not coming here forever, but coming with a mission to accomplish and then leaving. And I think I do represent that.
SEABROOK: Starting today, Frist will represent something else. As the new Senate majority leader, he is suddenly the ultimate insider. The big shift began when he became the liaison between the Senate Republicans and the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. He later agreed to lead the party’s Senate Campaign Committee in 2002, raising a record amount of money, working closely with the White House and sharing in the glory when the GOP took back the Senate majority. Steve Weiss is with the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in political campaigns.
Mr. STEVE WEISS (Center for Responsive Politics): There’s a lot of folks out there who owe Bill Frist a favor: the candidates who were elected, thanks to his help and the current members, who are now in the majority and thus have that much more power. Ranking members on committees are now chairmen of committees. In addition to President Bush, it’s really Bill Frist who has received the thanks of the Republican Party.
SEABROOK: It’s not clear yet how Frist will use the IOUs he’s collected, but his record suggests he’s comfortable with the president’s agenda, from the confrontation with Iraq to the battle over abortion. Doug Johnson is the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
Mr. DOUG JOHNSON (Legislative Director, National Right to Life Committee): Senator Frist has an excellent pro-life voting record. He has, in fact, voted for the ban on partial-birth abortion. He has given speeches in support of the ban on human cloning and so forth.
SEABROOK: Frist has also supported the administration’s anti-terrorism laws, which critics say sacrifice individual rights. Laura Murphy heads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. LAURA MURPHY (American Civil Liberties Union): Bill Frist is as insensitive to civil liberties as Trent Lott, and we can’t expect that he will stand as a bulwark for civil liberties against the president.
SEABROOK: Another group with long-standing worries about Frist is the US Humane Society. It’s an animal welfare group that praises some of Frist’s Republican colleagues, notably Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for supporting restrictions on puppy breeders and interstate commerce of wild animals. Wayne Pacelle heads the Humane Society’s legislative office and says Frist has not always acted humanely toward animals.
Mr. WAYNE PACELLE (US Humane Society): As a medical student, he went to animal shelters and acquired cats ostensibly for keeping them as pets. But in reality, he was cutting them open and learning more about mammalian anatomy.
SEABROOK: Frist admitted doing this in his autobiography. He repented and called the dissections heinous and dishonest. But Frist’s career in medicine will be a factor in handling the health-care agenda pending in the Senate. He is the Senate’s only doctor, and his family founded the nation’s largest chain of private hospitals. During last year’s campaigns, he raised more money from pharmaceutical companies than any other senator, more than $265,000. Jamie Court is with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and an author of “Making a Killing: HMOs and the Threat to Your Health.” Court says Frist has a close relationship with the drugmaker Eli Lilly. He sponsored legislation that would have limited legal liability for side effects of Lilly vaccinations and that Eli Lilly had recently purchased 5,000 copies of Frist’s recent book. Court says Frist’s health-care votes have fit a pattern.
Mr. JAMIE COURT (Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights): Blocking a strong Patients Bill of Rights in the Senate, gridlocking a mandatory prescription drug benefit and now promoting limited liability for hospital chains and doctors and HMOs.
SEABROOK: Frist’s rise to the top job in the Senate is among the quickest ascents in congressional history, a mixture of party service, loyalty and good timing. But the first eight years will soon seem little more than an introduction, as his Senate career enters a new phase as public and important as it was unexpected. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.