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.