Frist Assumes Leadership Post
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Confirmation of Senate Leadership Change Comes Monday
Dec. 23, 2002 -- Republican senators declare Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) incoming Senate majority leader Monday in a highly-unusual conference call. Frist's unchallenged rise follows the abrupt fall of Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) after a divisive furor over racially insensitive remarks.
Frist has done yeoman work behind the scenes for his party -- including running the GOP's 2002 Senate campaign committee -- but has not been perceived as a man with a thirst for power, acccording to New York Times congressional correspondent David Firestone. That image may be the key to his rapid acceptance by Republican Senate colleagues.
"They didn't want someone who overtly wanted the job," Firestone tells NPR's Liane Hansen.
The 2002 election drive that Frist helped orchestrate left Republicans in control of the Senate, though only narrowly. His new challenge will be to learn the intricate business of legislative leadership while adopting a far more public role than he has previously maintained.
"We don't really know too much about what kind of legislative 'warrior' he's going to be," Firestone says. "We don't know if he's going to be a compromiser, whether he's going to bring ideology to the mix, whether he's going to be, as they say, an accomodationist... His own style is yet to emerge."
Frist must also deal with a White House intent on using its congressional advantage to push through an ambitious legislative agenda before the 2004 presidential elections. Tax cuts and health care reform are high on the list.
As a newcomer to the leadership role, Frist is an unknown quantity, though his work on health care legislation is well established. But Firestone says there's a general belief that the Senate will follow the administration's lead on most issues.
"We expect to get our marching orders from the president," Firestone quotes Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as saying. McConnell is the Senate's second-highest ranking Republican.
Lott's stunning collapse began barely two weeks ago, at a 100th-birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). Addressing a crowd of several hundred well-wishers -- and a TV audience on C-SPAN -- Lott made what he later said were off-the-cuff remarks praising Thurmond's segregationist campaign for president in 1948.
"I want to say this about my state," Lott said that night. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Friday, after several public apologies and insistence that he would fight to keep his leadership post, Lott surrendered to political reality. He issued the following statement through his office:
"In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the
future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader
of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective Jan.
6, 2003. To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate."
Lott remained in seclusion at his home in Pascagoula, Miss., over the weekend. Sunday night, he broke his brief silence in an interview with the Associated Press.
"There are people in Washington who have been trying to nail me
for a long time," AP quoted Lott as saying. "When you're from Mississippi and you're a conservative and you're a Christian, there are a lot of people that don't like that. I fell into their trap and so I have only myself to blame."
Lott's remarks at the Thurmond event went almost unnoticed at first. Then a few critics -- including some conservative voices -- took him to task. He apologized, but the chorus swelled. President Bush delivered a public rebuke and many other top Republicans maintained a wary distance. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he "deplored" the comments, though he also said he accepted Lott's apologies as sincere.
Key Republicans questioned Lott's ability to help lead a party that made a significant effort in the 2000 presidential campaign to reach out to minorities.
Thursday night, Frist announced he was willing to challenge Lott "for the good of the Senate." Several senators quickly backed Frist's candidacy. Lott decided to step down.
Frist was the first physician elected to the Senate in half a century. A marathon runner said to work relentlessly at his legislative duties, Frist still keeps a doctor's bag in his office, though he no longer performs the heart and lung transplants that were his specialty.
But he has been called upon to use his medical skills on Capitol Hill -- most dramatically when a gunman stormed the Capitol in 1998. He treated the gunman, a police officer who was shot, and a tourist who suffered a heart attack.
Browse more NPR stories about Sen. Trent Lott.
Browse more NPR stories about Sen. Bill Frist.
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The Race Debate After Lott: A Roundtable
The NPR Ombudsman on Media Coverage of Lott
Sen. Trent Lott's Senate Web page
Read about Sen. Trent Lott's stance on different issues at the Issues 2002 Web site.
Sen. Bill Frist's Senate Web page