On the day before Christmas in 2002, Sen. Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) was given an early present by the White House and his fellow senators. He was elected majority leader of the United States Senate on a conference call. It was the first time in the history of the Senate that a majority leader was elected over the telephone.
Frist replaced Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) as majority leader. Lott resigned after making remarks that the Left and the liberal elites deemed controversial at the late Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Lott was engulfed in a media frenzy and in the view of many unfairly branded a racist for the words he used to praise an aging colleague who had served his country with devotion. (Thurmund, by the way, volunteered at age 38 for the paratroopers during WWII and was at D-Day.) Lott was hung out to dry and Frist was the administration’s hand-picked successor.
When it comes to carrying mantle for the White House’s agenda Sen. Frist has a mixed record at best. On Bush’s second term signature issue, the reform and restructuring of Social Security, he has been visibly absent, allowing the President’s bill to languish in the Senate Finance Committee.
As early as November 11 of last year, Frist made a speech suggesting that Senate rules should be changed to ban filibusters of judicial nominees. That measure was commonly called the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option. However, when the matter finally culminated more than six months later, the quote, “bipartisan gang of 14,” led by John McCain, drafted their own accord that excluded Frist from the room and effectively sacrificed several of George Bush’s more conservative judicial nominees.
Prior to the “McCain Mutiny,” victory was at hand for the President who had pledged to end judicial activism. Majority Leader Frist had the 50 votes to pass the rule that would have permitted the majority to have an up and down vote on each judicial nominee. By not watching the store, he effectively allowed Senate Minority Leader Reid (D.-Nev.) and company to keep the filibuster-veto with the promise that it would be used only under “extraordinary circumstances.” In other words, any judicial nominee that the President brought forward had to pass muster with the “liberal” minority in the Senate.
Now compounding Frist’s problems is the stalled and all-but-dead nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Three days after the “deal” on judicial nominations, and when the “feel-good aura” of bipartisanship was supposedly flowing through the Senate, Minority Leader Reid crushed the nomination of Bolton and refused to let the Senate confirm or reject him.
Since then, Frist has flip-flopped on the Bolton nomination, saying he planned no further votes to try to end the long-running Democratic filibuster. Then, after a chat with the President, he “reversed himself” by essentially stating that he would keep trying to get the job done. No later than the next day, the surgeon-turned-senator washed his hands of Bolton—saying the fight is really between the White House and senior Democratic Senators Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.). Bolton, by the way, is just the prescription that many conservatives believe is the right tonic for a scandal-ridden United Nations. He is blunt and effective, and he is the President’s choice.
Senator Frist has made no secret that he has Presidential ambitions. Another key test for him will be when the President nominates one, and possibly two, Supreme Court justices. Conservatives can only hope that Sen. Frist has learned to play hardball with the opposition. Nothing is more important to conservatives than the future direction of the Supreme Court. Should Sen. Frist fail to deliver on the President’s Supreme Court nominees, then the base of the Republican Party will surely disqualify him as a possible Republican standard bearer for President.
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