In the past week or so I’ve done a half dozen interviews on the performance of Bill Frist in his first year as Majority Leader. No doubt I was called by major news organizations because their Google search revealed that when Frist was first elected I made some statements that were skeptical of his likely performance.
I don’t know if I’ll get quoted this time because I told the reporters I have come to like and trust Frist. He has been the most effective Republican leader since Everett Dirksen, and I have known them all.
Frist’s office has just issued a two-page report entitled “Senate Conservative Highlights 2003.” That, in and of itself, is unique. Previous Senate leaders never wanted to admit that they had accomplished some of the conservative agenda.
On Right to Life issues, the Frist report lists the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Adoption Promotion Act, the banning of patenting of humans at all stages of development and the defeat of amendments sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) which would have required prescription contraceptive coverage in health plans and permitted abortions at military facilities. An outright majority defeated the latter amendment for the first time. Previously, such amendments have passed the Senate only to be dropped in Conference because the House is opposed. Frist also lists as an accomplishment the stripping of the provision overturning the Mexico City policy, which prevents funding of nongovernmental organizations that promote abortion, from the Omnibus appropriations bill.
While it is true that liberals have blocked six Circuit Court nominees, twelve nominees to the Circuit Courts have been approved. Most of them have the same views as those who are being blocked. In addition, 55 District nominees have been confirmed. This is still the lowest number for any President in memory in his first term. It reflects the view held by some in the Democrat caucus that President Bush is not really a legitimate President and therefore is not really entitled to many confirmations.
Frist mentions the 39-hour talk-a-thon on judges which many believe finally awakened America to the judges issue. He also mentions his proposed rules changes to permit a fewer number of votes to stop the filibuster of judicial nominees.
Although many believe that federal spending is out of control, the Frist report says it could have been a lot worse. He claims credit for the defeat of amendments that would have required $1.3 trillion dollars of federal spending over ten years.
On taxes the list is quite long and includes the passage of tax cuts, the passage of the Health Savings Act, the increased child tax credit, reduction in capital gains taxes and a number of other items including the passage of the CARE act which encourages private donations to non-profits and faith based charities.
On AIDS, Frist trumpets the fact that the bill that passed the Senate has an emphasis on abstinence and faithfulness.
In the foreign relations arena, the Senate passed an amendment to ensure that foreign aid does not support groups favoring legalizing prostitution. The Senate also passed the Syria and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which the President has not yet signed.
On matters close to home, Frist mentions the passage of the Amber alert to help find kidnapped children, and the PROTECT Act to strengthen laws against pornography. The Senate passed the SPAM act to help curtail unsolicited Internet pornography, and the “do not call” registry bill to prevent unwanted phone solicitations (although that could hardly be considered just a conservative measure). In any case the “do not call” bill, like the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, is being contested in the courts.
There are other items listed as well. No doubt if Sen. Frist didn’t have to muster 60 votes to pass anything, the list would have been much longer. The House has a much longer list, but there is no filibuster in the House.
Back when I worked in the Senate the minority was extremely reluctant to filibuster legislation. If there was a filibuster once or twice a session it was remarkable. The minority might threaten a filibuster one additional time. But that was it. Now the minority filibusters everything. They actually filibuster dozens of measures and nominees. They threaten filibusters at least twice a week. That has kept many House-passed bills off the Senate calendar.
I have come to know Bill Frist fairly well during this first session of the 108th Congress. He is a good man. He wants to do the right thing. He is a man of deep faith. He listens. He wants to learn the concerns of conservatives. He can’t always accommodate us because he doesn’t always have the troops behind him.
At the Attorney General’s holiday party, Senator Orrin Hatch, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, complained to me that it is conservatives who are preventing the so-called “nuclear option” from being implemented. The nuclear option would have the majority of Senators challenge the requirement of 60 votes to confirm judges. And having challenged the filibuster of judges on Constitutional grounds, the Senate would go head and confirm pending nominations by majority vote. Hatch is right. Both he and Frist want to move on this, but many conservatives won’t go along.
If Frist had another three or four conservative Senators I am confident that that his list would be as impressive as the House list. I have been a student of the Senate for 45 years. I think what Frist has done with a one-vote majority and with only a couple of conservative Democrats is nothing short of remarkable. Has he made mistakes? Sure. Could he learn more? Absolutely. But I think he has done about as well as is humanely possible with the cards he has been dealt. Conservatives ought to thank Bill Frist for a remarkable first year.