Frist's Presidential Ambitions Suffer Setbacks

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has not enjoyed a successful session. This week, he failed to break a Democratic filibuster on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and stumbled on the Patriot Act. His ambitions of running for the White House in 2008 seem more remote than ever.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This year in the Senate, the Democratic minority has been unusually united, while the ruling Republican majority has become increasingly fractured. For the last three years, the Senate's Republicans have been led by Tennessee heart surgeon Bill Frist. NPR's David Welna has this report on how Senator Frist has been doing.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

It was nearly midnight last night when Majority Leader Frist gave reporters his own upbeat assessment about how both the day and the year have gone for his caucus.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): We can stand before you, really, in almost a celebratory mood with what's been accomplished just in the last two hours, but indeed, over the course of the day. And then if you look back to the last 11 months, we can all say that we are governing with meaningful solutions.

WELNA: Frist can indeed point to some big wins. Bankruptcy laws were overhauled, as was energy policy, and the Senate did confirm John Roberts as chief justice by a wide margin, while four federal court nominees who'd been blocked by filibusters also won confirmation.

But this was also the year when Social Security reform went nowhere, when the nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador and a debate over torture fractured the GOP caucus, when seven Republicans defied Frist and joined seven Democrats in blocking his threat to do away with judicial filibusters, when plans to make permanent a repeal of the estate tax got blown away by Katrina, when Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination imploded and, as the year ended, Frist yielded to pressures to improve a revised Patriot Act by extending the current one six months on the same day the Senate scuttled drilling on the arctic plain.

Mr. MARSHALL WHITMAN (Progressive Policy Institute): In many ways, 2005 was Senator Frist's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

WELNA: Marshall Whitman served in the first Bush administration, has been Senator John McCain's spokesman and is now with a Democratic centrist think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. He says Frist found this past year that the drive to re-elect President Bush that had held Republicans together has vanished in his second term.

Mr. WHITMAN: Increasingly, what Senator Frist is going to run into is that moderates within his own caucus are going to vote their own interests rather than necessarily the party's interests. And particularly those senators who are up for re-election in 2006, who might be facing a difficult race, will be looking after their own political interests rather than Senator Frist's political interests.

WELNA: But according to Charles Jones, an emeritus congressional expert at the University of Wisconsin, a good part of Frist's problems keeping his troops in line have to do with his own style of leadership.

Mr. CHARLES JONES (University of Wisconsin): You've got to have extra-special leadership, very knowledgeable about the Senate if you're going to run the majority on difficult issues in a divisive time. And the fact is that Bill Frist has got a kind of a soft style, but he lacks the kind of leadership, knowledge, skills that Bob Dole had, let's say.

WELNA: Like former Republican Majority Leader Dole once did, Frist also appears keen on running for the White House. Marshall Whitman says Frist has a hard time being both leader and potential presidential contender.

Mr. WHITMAN: He has to carry the water of the White House in some very unpopular situations. Now another Senate majority leader who is not running for president might have done things differently, told the White House, `I cannot accomplish certain objectives that you've set out for me.' But he did not want to let down the White House because that would certainly convey to the conservative base of the party that he was not an effective team player.

WELNA: Both Whitman and Jones anticipate that next year will be even more difficult for Frist than this year's been. It's a year when the Senate's likely to reassert its oversight of national security issues much more than in the past, and it's also a year when many Republicans are going to be thinking more about getting re-elected than in following their leader. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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