WASHINGTON – Democrats say they can work with incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee if he continues his past practice of reaching across party lines to get legislation through the closely divided Congress next year.
"He's viewed as reasonably moderate for a southern Republican and I think there is an opportunity to work with him," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Republicans on Monday tapped Frist to be Senate Majority leader when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 7. He will replace Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who resigned last week after a verbal blunder at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that implied he favored segregation.
As majority leader, Frist will set the legislative agenda and run the chamber as well as serve as the GOP's key spokesman in the Senate.
One of Frist's first moves was to call Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the outgoing majority leader. "I committed to work with him, to work with members of the Democratic Caucus, and I should also add independents as well to make this Congress ... one that is positive, that brings people together and that is productive," Frist told reporters.
"I hope we can work together," Daschle replied later.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a likely Democratic presidential candidate, said he hopes Frist will be a bridge-builder in the Senate. "Unfortunately, these leadership jobs sometimes turn people more partisan than they should be, and I hope that's not going to be the case with Bill Frist," he said.
But Frist will have no choice but to work with Democrats if he wants to get any major legislation through Congress next year. The Senate will have 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent -- who votes with the Democrats. Without 60 votes, Frist cannot cut off debate and force votes.
A big challenge for Frist will be to please both the moderate and conservative wings of his own party. At the same time he will have to persuade some Democrats to go along with his agenda.
While there is some concern about having a novice leader, "Bill is a good listener and he'll have a good team around him," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. "The feeling is that he's going up against really salty leadership on the other side, but he'll have a good team around him to help advise him."
Frist has worked with Democrats before. When anthrax-laced letters were sent to Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. in the fall of 2001, it was Frist, a heart surgeon-turned-lawmaker, who worked to calm his colleagues and the nation.
When Republicans jettisoned President Clinton's 1995 nomination of Dr. Henry Foster as surgeon general, Frist joined Democrats in trying to salvage the nomination.
And while he's a political conservative who opposes abortion and favors tax and spending cuts, Frist has also crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on health and education issues, including legislation to reform Medicare, fight AIDS globally and give states flexibility in spending federal education funds.
Frist and liberal Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts were among the senators spearheading broad bioterrorism legislation earlier this year devoting $4.6 billion to stockpiling vaccines, improving food inspections and boosting security for water systems. They also worked together to get President Bush to sign legislation alleviating the nation's severe nursing shortage by making it more attractive to train for and work in the profession.
"Good things can happen if we work together regardless of party label, and I hope Sen. Frist will take this opportunity to do more of that," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who worked with Frist to pass laws requiring heart defibrillators on airplanes.