Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Monday elected the Senate’s only physician, Tennessean Bill Frist, as their new majority leader, hoping to shake a controversy over racially jarring remarks and reinvigorate the party — and the president’s — agenda.
The Nashville heart and lung transplant surgeon pledged to focus on improving Medicare, helping those without health insurance and “healing those wounds of division opened so prominently over the past few weeks.”
“I’ve been given responsibility before. As a physician, the responsibility was to heal, to listen very, very closely, to diagnose, to treat, and yes, to heal,” he said,
He did not mention the man who caused those wounds and whom he replaced: Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose praise of a one-time segregationist led to Monday’s leadership transplant.
The 42 senators on the conference call — including Lott — elected Frist unanimously, according to Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican who is from Pennsylvania.
“Senator Lott did speak at the conference and just wanted to thank everybody for their support and their prayers,” said Santorum, adding that Lott was offered no special deal, like a chairmanship, in exchange for his resignation as majority leader.
“Look, Senator Lott has been in this town a long time. He has a lot of interest in a variety of different issues and will have an opportunity now to pursue more of his own personal interests than maybe … the party’s interests,” Santorum said. “And I think in some respects this may be a little bit more liberating for him.”
Frist’s election Monday ended a bizarre series of events that began during a rare Washington snowstorm with a 100th birthday party for the country’s oldest senator and ended with the first election of a congressional leader via conference call.
Frist’s ascension began Dec. 5 when then-Majority Leader Lott praised Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign. During Thurmond’s birthday salute, Lott said he was proud that Mississippi had voted for the Dixiecrat and that if others had followed the country “wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”
The remarks brought demands that Lott resign as GOP leader. Initially, Lott’s GOP colleagues, including Frist, seemed supportive.
But nudged by the White House, steady public outrage and Lott’s clumsy apologies, more and more senators deserted Lott and made their grumbling more public.
On Dec. 12, one week after Lott’s remarks, Bush went out of his way to condemn Lott in a Philadelphia speech. On Dec. 15, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma was the first Republican to publicly urge his fellow senators to replace Lott. Four days later, Frist said he would seek the leadership post, and the next day Lott announced his resignation.
“These several weeks have been transformative for our caucus,” said Sen. George Allen, R-Va. “I think we all have learned. I think there’s greater understanding.”
Frist will take over as majority leader Jan. 7 when Congress returns for its next session. He will have what Santorum called “the hardest job in politics.”
Though he will have the title of leader, he will have little control over the 50 other Republican senators, all appeasing their own constituents and their own ambitions.
The Harvard-educated millionaire will earn $171,900 as majority leader — $17,200 more than the other senators — and will get an office with a view of the Mall and the Washington Monument. Last year the majority leader’s office came with a budget of $1.4 million, according to Dave Lingle, the senate’s assistant financial clerk. That pays for a staff of policy experts, receptionists and representatives.
Outgoing Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had about 10 people working on his leadership staff, said his spokeswoman, Ranit Schmelzer.
Republicans — including President Bush, the man widely believed behind the scenes to have pushed Frist’s rise — were quick to praise Frist’s election.
“Senator Frist has earned the trust and respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Bush said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him and all members of the Senate and House to advance our agenda for a safer, stronger and better America.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who will chair the Senate Finance Committee, said Frist has a good reputation for working with both parties.
“Most immediately, I’m looking forward to having Senator Frist’s knowledge and experience contribute to the task of strengthening and improving Medicare, including adding a prescription drug benefit,” Grassley said.
Democrats too, offered praise for Frist.
“He doesn’t have a reputation as one of the fiercest partisans out there, so I hope he’ll be bipartisan,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “He’s a fine man, an intelligent, hard-working man and a caring man. I’ve worked with him on some health care issues, and I think he’ll be a very good leader.”
Daschle signaled a willingness to get down to business.
“I hope we can work together to promote economic security and justice for all Americans, protect America from terrorism, and deal with the other urgent needs of our nation.”
The few critics so far include liberal groups who consider him too tied to health care companies. His family founded HCA, a major hospital chain known as Hospital Corporation of America when it began in 1968 that recently agreed to pay more than $880 million to settle claims of false claims, kickbacks and fraud.
“The Senate should not replace a racist with a principal backer of one of the largest corporate swindles ever perpetrated against the American public,” said Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights, a consumer watchdog group based in Santa Monica, Calif.