“There was no consultation, the President and his staff had no idea this was coming,” says a White House source. “We were shocked.”
The White House was indeed angered by Frist’s decision, but at least politically it’s almost unimaginable that senior White House officials wouldn’t have known that Frist was re-examining his position on stem-cell research.
“Everyone knew he was mulling this issue over,” says a Senate staffer to a conservative Republican. “He was talking to a lot of people, consulting with friends and experts. Now, maybe the White House believed he would remain firm with them, but if it got caught flat-footed, that’s their problem. Bill Frist wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary.”
The surprise at Frist’s speech on the floor of the Senate is yet another example of a White House operation that often either misreads or doesn’t even bother to try to read the tea leaves on Capitol Hill. From the bloated Highway Bill to judicial nominations and high-profile political appointments, the Bush team rarely seems to anticipate an outcome beyond the one or two options that crossed the mind of chief of staff Andrew Card.
“For a President who is pretty astute politically this White House staff doesn’t pick up on much,” says another Senate staffer. “Sometimes the writing is on the wall, like the Highway bill. We all knew we were going to bust the cap the White House tried to put on the overall cost of the bill. The White House saw it coming, yet they still talked about a veto, when it was obvious that they weren’t going to be able to put the President in that position. He’s going to have to sign the bill.”
Likewise, Frist’s decision on stem cells puts the President in a politically awkward position. Frist has given a decent amount of cover to other Republicans and Democrats who might have backed a more Bush-like policy on stem cell research, but who now will most likely step out with Frist, placing the President in an increasingly isolated position.
“That the White House can claim they never saw Frist coming on this is just shocking,” says an outside lobbyist with ties to the White House. “Their short-sightedness has put the President in an awkward position, and something could have been done over the past few weeks to avoid this.”
Frist’s stem-cell speech obscured a week in which his leadership team pulled off a remarkable run. In a comparatively short amount of time, Frist was able to clear the decks of just about every major piece of legislation that lingered in the Senate, moving the long-awaited highway and energy bills through, as well as the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
“I don’t know that any other leader in the past 15 years has done what Frist did in the past few weeks,” says a longtime Senate lobbyist. “The amount of legislation they moved was remarkable. It was like watching a top-flight air traffic controller, just lining things up and landing them on the tarmac one after the other. For folks that are political junkies, this was a great few weeks. Mitchell never did this. Lott never did this. Frist deserves some credit.”
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