Democrats won't be caught flat-footed with new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, several days after the Republican victory in the November elections, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and others in the party authorized an intensive opposition research report on Frist. "It was obvious then that he was going to be a national political figure for the party," says a DNC staffer. "No one could have anticipated what has just happened, but we're certain there is stuff in his past we'll be able to dig up."
Of most interest to the DNC are Frist's financials. Before arriving in Washington, he helped run his family's HMO business, and was considered a savvy businessman along with being a superb physician. "There is some real concern here, though, that he's a Mr. Clean type," says the Democratic Party operative.
Initial reports out of Tennessee would appear to confirm their fears. "There isn't much, so far," says staffer for the state Democratic Party in Tennessee. "He was a physician and businessman, so you'd assume there were some court cases, a really ugly malpractice case or problems with the business, but it just isn't there. We've looked."
Republicans weren't about to be blindsided, either. Both the RNC and the White House have checked out Frist over the past few months as his profile in the Senate continued to rise. "There isn't anything there," says an RNC staffer. "You know the Democrats are going to be picking through his medical background for the health care reform fight, but at this point, they'd be morons to tear this guy down. A year from now, the country is going to be clamoring for him to be vice president."
Frist went into Monday's vote understanding full well what he was getting into. According to Senate sources, Frist spoke extensively with his caucus colleagues, including several long sessions with Sen. Don Nickles, about whether he was up to the challenge of a post-Lott leadership post.
"The environment isn't as poisoned as you might think," says a Republican Senate staffer. "A week ago, things looked bleak. Today, things don't appear so bad, we're thinking that with the holidays and other stuff going on around the world we're almost back to where we were after the elections."
A FILL OF LOTT
Speculation continues up on Capitol Hill on what leadership role, if any, Sen. Trent Lott will fill. On Monday, leading into the vote to elect Sen. Bill Frist Majority Leader, the spin was that Lott would be getting no committee chairmanship for all his trouble. Unnamed sources were quoted in the press as saying that Lott's window of opportunity to cut such a deal was closed.
But according to several Lott loyalists, he's still focused on gaining some kind of position. Keep in mind, he currently holds a seat on the powerful Finance Committee, which for just about anyone else, would be enough. One potential chairmanship he now is said to be eyeing is the Senate Rules Committee, currently chaired by Pennsylvania's Sen. Rick Santorum. Previous rumors had Lott circling the Energy Committee, where Pete Domenici now controls the chairmanship and Budget, where Lott's old rival Don Nickles, is slated to take over. On all three committees, Lott isn't thought to have a chance.
The White House, which suddenly is taking a very proactive approach to its dealings in the Senate, does not want Lott on Budget, where he would have to work with both the Bush Administration and Democrats. "You saw how fast he sold the Senate Republicans down the river to save his job," says a White House legislative liaison staffer. "Can you imagine the kind of deals he'd cut on Budget?"
The same reasoning holds for Rules, where prior to the Lott debacle, Republicans were said to be holding tight to demands that Democrats not get an even close to equitable shares of staff levels and budgets on committees. Again, there would concerns about Lott's ability to stand firm on conservative, Republican policy and game plan.
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