WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans have failed to play "hardball" with Democrats over the filibuster of President Bush's judicial nominations and other issues, say critics, some of whom suggest Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) doesn't have what it takes to get the job done.
“I think Bill Frist is too weak — it may be that he is a little green as a leader — he’s not a street fighter, and that’s what the Republicans need in regards to the Democratic filibuster, a street fighter,” said Phil Kent, author and former president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation (search).
“Whatever was done or not done is because the leadership decided not to do it,” said former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, on the loss of U.S. Circuit Court nominee Miguel Estrada (search), who withdrew Sept. 4 after several months of Democratic filibuster.
Conservatives have also expressed frustration over the Senate’s performance on fiscal issues since taking back the majority in 2002. Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union (search), said the GOP has wobbled on this front.
“There are a number of areas where the Senate has been very problematic,” he said, calling the Senate version of the Medicare bill, passed in June, “dreadful."
The 10-year, $400 billion package includes a government-subsidized prescription drug plan for seniors. The House version privatizes the drug benefit. A final bill is currently being hammered out in conference.
While moderate Republicans like the Mainstreet Partnership (search) applaud the Senate bill, conservatives like the ACU call it "a massive entitlement," and threaten to oppose anything without cost controls.
But Lessner doesn’t blame Frist. “There are a certain number of liberal-leaning Republicans who are irresponsible,” he said. “Poor Bill Frist, he’s in a tough place.”
Analysts suggest that Frist is doing a fine job with what he has to work with — a super-slim GOP majority — 51-48-1 — which includes a handful of senators who won’t always march lock step to the party’s beat.
“Being the majority leader is like being in charge of a herd of cats — ask any of the former majority leaders and they will tell you the same thing,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (search).
“These are 100 iconoclasts who are determined to shine, to succeed, and the party and everything else comes second,” he continued. “Frist critics can criticize him to the cows come home but it won’t make any difference.”
Mike Franc, spokesman for the Heritage Foundation (search), said it’s healthy for Frist and the GOP to “feel their feet to the fire,” but to keep in mind the context.
"By historical standards, he (Frist) is in one of the toughest binds a majority leader could be in," he said, noting that when Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle was majority leader in 2001-2002, the Senate hadn’t even passed a budget resolution and was unusually late passing its spending bills.
Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform (search), said Frist's big success came with the May passage of the president’s $350 billion tax cut package by a slim 51-49 vote. He thinks Frist has boosted the GOP’s image.
"He's done a fantastic job and is a model for the new conservative movement," Collegio said.
Frist, a prolific fund-raiser for the GOP, wasn’t the next guy in line for the job, but supporters hoped he would bring a renewed spirit of bipartisanship to the office, faced with a razor-thin majority, and a host of judicial nominees languishing in legislative limbo.
His honeymoon period was short. Beginning last winter, Senate Democrats launched an unprecedented filibuster against judicial nominees Priscilla Owen, William Pryor and Estrada, invoking a 60-vote rule never used before on judicial nominees to close debate for a full-Senate vote.
In the case of Estrada, Frist attempted and failed seven times to get the votes necessary for the cloture.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., called the Estrada withdrawal a “wake-up call to the White House” and Democrats were not going to simply “rubber stamp” his nominees.
The real wake-up call should be to Frist and the GOP, say critics, who believe the Republicans have yet to learn their lesson – that playing "nice" isn’t always going to win the day.
"Democrats have no shame or floor when it comes to tactics, and Republicans have to be willing to pull out the brass knuckles,” charged Republican communications consultant Monty Warner. “Until they are, these things will continue to happen."
Barr said Frist needs to start keeping Democratic bills off of the agenda until they relent on the nominees.
“I think some (Republicans) think if they are very nice to the Democrats they will be nice in return — that never happens,” Barr said. “If we are not playing hardball enough, then shame on us.”
Some critics want Frist to force the Democrats to carry out their filibuster the old-fashioned way, forcing them to plead their case around the clock on the Senate floor. Then there’s the so-called “nuclear option,” which would require a rule change to ensure a simple majority cloture vote for judicial nominees.
Others say such aggression would kill any amity left between the two sides, ensuring gridlock for other business.
“We’re trying to be responsible to the American people, and at the same time call their attention to what’s going on,” said one Senate GOP aide who did not want to be named.
Sources close to the majority leader say he is still committed to pursuing some solution, even a rule change, if necessary.
“I think the majority of senators know what a tough time he (Frist) has had, and people have a great respect for him,” said the Republican aide who defended him against critics who said he was not tough enough. “Once appropriations are over … the next opportunity he gets to have more time on the floor, he wants to have at it.”