Senators Tap Bill Frist As New GOP Leader
The 50-year-old Frist replaces Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who stepped down Friday amid controversy over comments praising Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 run for president as a segregationist.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told reporters Frist was elected by acclamation during the conference call with 42 GOP senators.
At a news conference following his selection, Frist said he was proud of his Republican colleagues, who he said have “risen to the challenges of the past two weeks and we will rise to the challenge of the next two years.”
“We stand united, we speak as one team,” Frist said. “I honestly believe this will transform what has occurred in the past two weeks … into a catalyst for unity and a catalyst for positive change.”
Sen. George Allen told reporters he thought Republicans would come together under Frist’s leadership.
“I think we’re all united behind Bill Frist,” he said. “We’re going to work as a team, and we’re going to move forward.”
President Bush issued a statement praising Frist as a legislator who has “earned the trust and respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
A Nashville native and Harvard-trained heart and lung transplant surgeon, Frist has served in the Senate since 1995. He was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the past election, helping to plan the GOP’s rise to retake Senate control.
Frist currently serves on the Budget, Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees. He has remained a strong voice on health care issues, even crossing the aisle to work with Senate Democrats on health-related legislation.
As majority leader, Frist said he would work with GOP colleagues and the entire Senate to address the “daunting challenges” that face the U.S., including U.S. military operations, the economy, health care and the war on terrorism.
Frist said he has already spoken with South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate’s Democratic leader, and said he’s looking forward to a “positive” and “productive” session.
Frist will officially become majority leader when the Republicans assume Senate control in January.
Profile: Senator Bill Frist
Dubbed “Doc Politic” by the National Journal, Sen. Bill Frist must now work to stabilize a Senate leadership shaken by the sudden ouster of Sen. Trent Lott.
Frist remained out of the early intra-party fighting that broke out after Lott’s comments praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist campaign for president, not publicly taking on the issue until Dec. 19 when he said he would challenge the Mississippi senator for leader.
“I indicated to [GOP colleagues] that if it is clear that a majority of the Republican Caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role,” Frist said in a statement.
Frist served as the chairman of the Senate’s national campaign committee for the 2002 mid-term elections and is credited with engineering enough victories to return control of that body to the GOP.
As the campaign chairman, Frist worked closely with White House political operatives and is reported to have won the support of the president.
Frist was born in and raised in Nashville. He graduated from Princeton University in 1974 and Harvard medical school in 1978. He returned to Tennessee to join the faculty of Vanderbilt University’s medical school in 1985. While there he developed a reputation as a renowned surgeon and researcher in the area of heart and lung transplants.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1994 when, as a political novice, he upset three-term Democratic Sen. James Sasser, winning 56 percent of the vote and spending almost $4 million of his own money in the process. Frist was re-elected in 2000 with the largest margin ever received by a candidate for statewide election in the history of Tennessee.
Frist has promised to limit himself to two terms in the Senate, which has led some to speculate that he might join the presidential ticket in 2004 if Vice President Cheney retires. Some of his senate colleagues have said Frist could well be headed someday to the White House with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saying the Tennesseean is “presidential timber.”
After the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, Frist raised his national profile by appearing on television as an expert on bioterror threats and the country’s preparedness to combat them.
During his time on Capitol Hill, Frist has become a sort of unofficial Senate physician. He attended to elderly senator Strom Thurmond on a number of occasions and helped save the life of the man who killed two Capitol police officers in 1998.
By his own admission Frist’s temperament is closer that of a politician than a surgeon. He is known for his courteous manner and is said to be popular on both sides of the aisle. Frist told the National Journal that, unlike many of his colleagues in the surgical field, he has never had the sense of superiority and hair-trigger temper that causes many doctors to berate subordinates and throw instruments.
The Journal called him more “analytical than pugnacious” in his approach to politics. He has on occasion joined forces with liberals such as Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin in committee work and legislation.
Frist’s work in the Senate has primarily been in his field of expertise. He has worked on issues such as AIDS, cloning, and patients rights and serves on Budget, Foreign Relations, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committees, and is the ranking member on both the Subcommittee on Public Health and the Subcommittee on African Affairs.
Critics have complained that Frist sometimes adjusts his views to appease his GOP colleagues. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois was disappointed with Frist’s work on funding to combat the transmission of AIDS to infants of infected mothers. Durbin said he was dismayed after Frist acquiesced to White House requests to reduce the original $500 million in 2002 to $200 million. Frist argues that his committee did not have the support to pass a bill for $500 million at once and that he secured the additional $300 million funding by spreading it over two years.
Medical colleagues have been surprised that a transplant surgeon could oppose the creation of embryos for medical research, which many believe is the best hope for finding a cure for many devastating diseases. Frist has said he opposes embryo creation on ethical grounds because he says human embryos should not be created just for experimentation and then destroyed. Frist has supported stem cell research, but only when existing cells from other medical procedures are used.
The National Journal said that Frist’s position on embryonic research exemplifies that “he’s no longer a doctor first who just happens to be in politics.”
Frist and his wife, Karyn, have three sons: Harrison, Jonathan, and Bryan.