Published May 19, 2005
WASHINGTON – Senate leaders are consensus-builders, horse traders, specialists in pulling out deals that no one thinks can be done.
So why has Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., dug in his heels on winning the confirmation of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees?
Frist has served as the standard-bearer for the White House and the Republican Party's religious conservatives in the fight to put like-minded jurists on the federal bench. He has rejected Democratic offers to confirm some of the blocked nominees, contending that all deserve a vote while moving forward on the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen (search), a step toward a Senate showdown.
For Frist, a man with White House ambitions, it's a role that has elevated his status in the 2008 presidential race
But beyond his grasp, a group of Democrats and Republicans — moderates, conservatives, institutionalists — has been working on a compromise that would allow votes on some nominees and avert a debilitating confrontation.
A bipartisan deal could undercut Frist's political standing and his remaining months as Senate leader — he's indicated he won't seek another term next year.
"If he does get rolled on this issue, it's going to look a lot less like a gladiator and more like Barney Fife," said John J. Pitney Jr. (search), a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Said Randy Button (search), the Democratic Party chairman in Tennessee, "It would have a devastating effect on his potential run in 2008."
Frist has been steadfast in arguing that each of the president's nominees deserves an up-or-down vote that can be won with just 51 votes in the 100-member Senate rather than the 60 needed to end filibusters that are blocking them. Conservatives, a crucial voting bloc in the Republican primaries, have made it clear that anything less is unacceptable.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, rejected any talk of compromise on Wednesday.
"Some of the Republican senators engage in this at their own political risk," Perkins said. "So much is riding on the courts. Someone that sells the American people short on this, they're going to have a hard time running for national office."
But the political landscape shifts later in the race for the White House.
"It's sort of a gamble because primary politics differ from general election politics. It's a calculated risk," said Mark Byrnes, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Frist, a heart surgeon, was the White House's choice for majority leader after the undoing of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose favorable comments about Strom Thurmond's segregationist past cost him the leadership post.
While Senate leaders work toward consensus, they also must do the bidding of the White House if they share the same political affiliation. In the face of compromise, Frist has had to carry the Bush administration's torch.
"He's the White House's majority leader," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Frist's home state.
Majority leaders tend to leave themselves room to maneuver. Oppenheimer said Frist did not. "He staked a lot, wisely or unwisely, on this filibuster thing. He put his feet in cement. Majority leaders usually have someone else put their feet in cement."
With no plans for another term, Frist is a lame-duck majority leader, and his tenure and ability to push Bush's legislative agenda could be even more difficult depending on the outcome of the judicial fight.
Any outcome other than getting his way entirely could lead to the perception of an ineffectual leader: a compromise that scuttles any of the nominations, a loss on the critical parliamentary vote scheduled next week, or a confrontation with Democrats that reduces the Senate to a crawl.
"If the political community sees that Frist lost control of the process, his political stock is going to take a dip," Pitney said.
Among the Republicans seeking a compromise on the judicial nominees is a potential 2008 rival to Frist — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Last week, it was McCain who appealed to his Republican colleagues at a closed-door meeting to compromise with the Democrats, a notion Frist rejected.
Despite the forces aligned against him, Frist has emerged a survivor before.
"He's used to doing the impossible," said Ted Welch, a Tennessee Republican and top fundraiser. "Nobody thought in 2002 that there would be a gain of Republicans in the Senate when he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. I met with him four times before he decided to run against Jim Sasser. 'Be prepared to lose,' I told him four times on four different occasions."
Frist stunned the Democrat Sasser in 1994 to capture the Senate seat.