By MARGARET TALEV
May 23, 2005
In surgery and politics alike, there are no sure things. Timing, training and keeping cool are key. But surgery demands swiftness, precision. Politics is an art of negotiation, cajoling. Surgery is rational, politics emotional.
Frist's success as a heart and lung transplant surgeon helped him a decade ago to vault to national politics, and, in late 2002, to the leadership post he holds today. But this post-election year, in which conservative activists emboldened by President Bush's second term and Republicans' hold on Congress are pressing the GOP to enact their agenda, Frist's political skills are being tested as never before.
The Tennessee Republican's performance could determine whether he has the clout with his party's base - or the crossover appeal with the American public - to seek the presidency in 2008.
In the partisan standoff over the president's judicial nominees, Frist's challenge is pulling together 51 Republican votes to adopt a move known as the "constitutional" or "nuclear" option. It would prevent Democrats from blocking confirmation votes for nominees they accuse of having ideologically conservative agendas, by allowing a simple majority vote of senators, instead of 60, to end filibusters. The GOP holds 55 of 100 Senate seats and Vice President Dick Cheney could cast a tie-breaking vote. But if six Senate Republicans resist, Frist's plan is sunk.
"He has been a very competent center-right Republican leader who could arguably step into the presidency," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading conservative organizer.
"Here's the challenge as a senator: Why should we elect you, as opposed to (other GOP hopefuls such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, George Allen of Virginia, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania or Sam Brownback of Kansas)? Senators never did anything successfully that no one else did, because 51 people had to do it.
"This is his opportunity to shine in front of the public on something that's never been done before," Norquist said. "He's not just one more vote for it. He's had to manage the timing, and the massaging back and forth of guys who have reputations as mavericks. This is not another tax cut. Ending judicial filibusters is big, different, important. And, therefore, it has tremendous upside for Frist if he's able to do it. He could be a hero to the conservative movement in the Republican Party."
Frist says he's going forward because he believes it's the right thing to do. "I do not rise for party; I rise for principle," he said on the Senate floor last week, launching the debate expected to trigger the rule change within days.
In a brief interview the evening before at his office in the Capitol, Frist, 53, lanky with earnest, almost bewildered eyes, a gentle drawl, in-place chestnut hair, and hands he sometimes presses together as he speaks, said he has not allowed presidential considerations to color his actions.
"For me, it's easy, like in medicine, to compartmentalize, and that really does come from having to go into an operating room and separate both emotion and the sensibilities that are so human to having a job of technically saving someone's life by removing their heart and putting another heart in," he said.
"Right now, my focus is 100 percent on getting judges a fair up-or-down vote. In terms of future plans, that would be decided after I leave the U.S. Senate and move back to Tennessee. And that might be spending my life trying to cure HIV/AIDS, going back to the operating room, which I'm trained to do, doing medical mission work, or something in the political arena."
A lifelong Presbyterian, married, with three sons, Frist disputes the notion that he needed to prove to conservatives he is one of them. The nuclear option was not inevitable or a pact with evangelical America, he says, and for a year and a half he hoped for a bipartisan compromise.
Democrats are quick to impugn his motives.
"This isn't a 'constitutional option,' it's a campaign opportunity," said Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., speaking on the Senate floor. Dayton said Frist "will cut the Senate's heart out with this hatchet job. Why? To show the social conservatives he's heartless enough to be president. I respect the majority leader's right to run for president. I just wish he wouldn't use the institution of the Senate to do so."
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