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The Senate’s New Leader: Bill Frist

December 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Senator Frist did not take any questions from reporters today, but now, more on Senator Frist and the challenges ahead. Lamar Alexander is the Republican Senator-elect from Tennessee and a longtime friend of Senator Frist. He’s a former Tennessee governor, U.S. Education Secretary, and a two-time Republican presidential candidate. Joining him is James Barnes, chief political correspondent for the National Journal.

Senator-elect Alexander, congratulations on your election, first of all. Tell us a little about Senator Frist. You’ve known him for a long time. What do people who have never really had to focus on him outside of Tennessee need to know, and how is he different from Senator Lott?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, let me tell you a very short story to answer your question. Imagine ten years ago, a 40-year-old young physician having dinner with his family here in Nashville, gets an emergency telephone call, goes out to the airport, gets in his own plane, flies to Duke, to the medical center, cuts the heart and lungs out of a dying person, puts it in a plastic bag full of ice, puts it back in his plane, flies back to the Vanderbilt University heart transplant center, which he founded, and goes into an eight-hour surgery procedure to place that heart and lungs back into another dying person who then lives.

Now, if you understand that, and a man who then gets back to his young family the next morning about 12 hours after he left, you understand about 75 or 80 percent of who Bill Frist is.

GWEN IFILL: You’ve never been in the Senate, but you’ve been in Washington Senator-elect Alexander. How do the things you just described Senator Frist doing, his medical preparation and his background, how does that prepare him for what he’s going to have to do to manage a famously fractious U.S. Senate?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, one thing, he doesn’t sleep very much, so he’s got a lot of time to listen to all of our different things. He suggested to we freshmen the other day, he said Washington doesn’t really start until 9:00 or 9:30 and surgery starts about 6:00. So you’ve got two or three dead hours you could really go to work if you wanted to.

But he’s a good listener, he’s not all hung up with himself. People say that we senators are all elbows and egos lots of time. I’m not yet one, but that’s what they would say. Bill is not like that. He’s also very intelligent. He’s also a fair-minded person; the head of the NAACP, Dr. Ben Hooks, former head, said over the weekend he was, Bill Frist is a fair-minded person.

So those qualities, his intelligence, his fairness, and the fact he’s been a very good student in dealing with very difficult tasks, I think that all serves him very well.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Jim Barnes, it is probably not insignificant that Ben Hooks, the former head of NAACP, is being quoted as a character witness for Bill Frist. That’s the first of many challenges he has waiting for him — healing the wounds that arose after Senator Lott’s exit.

JAMES A. BARNES: Oh, without a doubt; I mean, the whole thing that brought Bill Frist to power were the missteps of the former majority leader. And the Republicans and the Bush White House realized that this is a party that is going to need votes from African-Americans, from Hispanics, in the upcoming elections, and just to reduce the public resistance to their legislative agenda, and this is something that Frist is going to have to work on, to sort of put a more compassion a face on the Republican Party, the way that a lot of Republicans think that George Bush has been able to do.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned what the Bush White House needs to happen here. One of the problems that Senator Frist seems to be wrestling with right off the bat is that he seems to be too much a creature linked too closely to the White House. Why is that a bad thing?

JAMES A. BARNES: Well, because the Senate, either party in the Senate, these are notoriously independent people, these are people who really do take a great deal of pride in their own prerogatives, and they don’t like to be told what to do. This is of course the most deliberative body in the… legislative body in the world, as they like to say.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s also a body which former majority leaders have described as herding cats, trying to run the Senate.

JAMES A. BARNES: No doubt. And so I think Bill Frist is going to have to establish a little bit of independence from the White House, because although he has a great deal of gratitude of his Republican colleagues for leading them in their effort to retake the Senate in the mid term elections, they’re going to be looking at him to look at his independence, including quite a few conservatives who don’t really see Senator Frist as one of their own.

GWEN IFILL: Senator-elect Alexander, let’s talk about that. The conservatives who do not see, as Jim Barnes just said, Senator Frist as one of their own, is that a correct read?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: I don’t think so. And I haven’t really heard that concern among the Republican Senators. I think Congressional Quarterly showed him as one of the ten most conservative senators last year. He has conservative principles, but he has an independent streak, that’s what makes him appealing; I mean, he’s chairman of the Africa subcommittee and has been often reported in the summers while others are at the beach or on other places, he flies his airplane to the rebel held part of the Sudan and as a medical missionary performs operations on people so he can learn more about AIDS.

So he has a human face, and he sticks to his conservative principles. But I think people see him as a fair man, and I think the most Republican Senators think of themselves as conservatives and think of Bill Frist as one of us.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the challenges you members of the Senate face, the incoming members of the United States Senate face, and Senator Frist by implication as your leader.

There is a $10 billion gap between what the Senate has appropriated for this new budget and what President Bush would like to see spent in this new budget. How do you begin to wrestle with the budget fix which you face, and how does Senator Frist begin to manage that?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, there’s not a $10 billion gap yet because the Senate didn’t get its job done last year. The first thing we’re going to have to do January 7th when we go back is pass all of the appropriate rations bills that were not passed for the current year that we’re in.

No doubt about it — that is going to be tough. The war is going to be tough — if there is one — dealing with confirming judges, reducing the tax rates. These are very difficult issues, and Senator Frist is going to have his hands full. But of all the choices that we had before us, I think we Republican Senators feel like Senator Frist is ready made for the job.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the choices you have before you. Are you in any way relieved that Senator Lott is no longer in this job?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I regret what happened to Senator Lott. That was a real — that was a tragic thing. I know how he was looking forward to being leader. He’d been it before, then he was minority leader; he was convinced he could be a better leader and he’s got a lot of pain right now.

But I think he did the right thing. He put the party and the country ahead of his own ambitions, and we have a leader who is the right leader for right now in Bill Frist, and I believe Trent will come back and find a niche for himself in the Senate and be very influential over time.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Barnes, is that what is going to happen with Trent Lott, a niche?

JIM BARNES: The Republicans were trying to find a real soft landing for him, maybe get him a committee chairmanship. But surprise, surprise — none of those Republican Senators who expect to be taking the gavel were willing to hand one over to him. So I expect, though, Senator Lott will stick around, he’ll be a team player, he will try to contribute. And my guess is he’s also going to try to make Bill Frist’s job as easy as he possibly can.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Frist is 50 years old, he’s only been in the Senate eight years, he’s promised he’ll only serve two terms, and he never voted until he was 36 years old. Is it is a challenge for him to become the kind of insider have you to be to run the Senate effectively?

JAMES A. BARNES: I think so. I mean, this is a Senator who has worked across party lines, he’s worked with Ted Kennedy on bioterrorism preparedness legislation, he’s worked with Jay Rockefeller on some legislation to permit hospitals and doctors to have more flexibility in dealing with Medicare. But he really hasn’t been the author of a major piece of legislation.

He’s been in the leadership by virtue of having led the Republican effort in the mid term campaigns. But he is going to need to take some time to learn the ins and outs of the United States Senate. After all, the reason why all of these Republicans were so happy to elect him as their new leader is that he puts, he’s a very good public spokesman for the Republican Party. And after the fiasco with Trent Lott and the Thurmond controversy, this is really what a lot of Republicans were looking first and foremost.

GWEN IFILL: Senator-elect Alexander, Bill Frist has described himself as an overachiever. That can be read two ways. Is overachieving a recipe for success, or can overachieving lead to overreaching?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, it could lead to overreaching. I think he’s wise enough not to overreach. He understands his weaknesses, he knows he’s not steeped in politics like Howard Baker or Lyndon Johnson, or Bob Dole. He knows that.

His approach is a team approach. That may turn out to be a real strength of his. He’s going to be very helpful to our party to carry our message across this country, and some of the senior Republican Senators who know the ins and outs of the Senate a lot better than he does, they’ll have a bigger role to play as a result of that, and they may like that. They may like having a leader who gives them more room, more participation.

GWEN IFILL: Does he automatically become seen as a lame duck because he has agreed to this two-term limit?

SENATOR-ELECT LAMAR ALEXANDER: I don’t think so. You know, Lyndon Johnson served only two terms in the United States Senate. And Robert Caro just finished the book that won the National Book award based on his extraordinary career in the Senate. So you can get a lot done in twelve years, Lyndon Johnson proved that and so have many others.

GWEN IFILL: Senator-elect Alexander, we’ll see you in Washington, and Jim Barnes, thank you very much.