Frist Builds Support by Aiding GOP Freshmen

Posted April 18, 2003 at 1:32pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has begun hosting private meetings with freshman GOP Senators, a gesture that has helped instill party loyalty in at least one wing of the politically fractured Republican Conference.

The meetings are held in Frist’s Capitol Hill office, where he opens the floor for general policy discussions and his top aides offer tips on how to navigate the chamber’s legislative waters.

“We mainly just sit around the table and sort of see where they are, if they need mentors [or] if they have specific questions, particularly about parliamentary procedure,” Frist said in an interview before Congress adjourned.

These meetings could prove crucial for Frist, who is certain to be looking to shore up support within the Senate Republican Conference should House leaders continue to grill him for failing to convince a pair of moderate Republicans to back a tax cut larger than $350 billion.

The freshman Senators are a natural base for Frist. He helped recruit, raise money for and elect each and every one of them when he served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2002 cycle.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the group so far has met periodically and described the meetings as “very positive.”

“I think he is just trying to be a resource for us, because we are all new here and he is figuring out how he can help us be more effective in our jobs and work together,” Cornyn said.

Frist even invited Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) to attend a recent meeting, the only true freshman Democrat in the 2003 class.

But in the first 100-plus days of their Senate careers, Frist and other veteran Senators point out that there is very little need for hand-holding of a freshman Republican class that includes two ex-Cabinet officials, four former House Members, and several ex-state and local officeholders.

“It is unique and probably one of the best classes I have ever seen,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who helped place the new GOP Senators in their committee assignments. “These Senators have come very quickly up to speed.”

Republicans note the freshmen are not shy about speaking up in Conference meetings, and GOP leaders have been turning to some of them to tap their expertise on issues ranging from education and labor to economics and homeland security.

“We really needed the energies and capabilities of this class,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I find myself wanting to spend more and more time with them.”

In the pack of nine, only one maverick has emerged in the first few months and even he is considered a close ally of President Bush. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) bucked Bush on a crucial vote to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but GOP leaders are generally pleased with his performance and tout his appeal among Republican activists and donors.

“He is very principled and articulate in what he believes is in the best interest of the country,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.). “He is very straightforward and sincere.”

In what has been somewhat of a surprise, two former presidential contenders turned freshmen lawmakers, Sens. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), have intentionally maintained low profiles in the first few months of the 108th Congress.

Alexander, who has served as governor and Education secretary, said his public service and experience in the private sector have helped prepare him to be a Senator.

“I am a much better Senator at age 62 than I would have been at 35 because it helps to have lots of experiences, especially when so much is at stake,” said Alexander, who noted he “hasn’t had time to think about adjusting.”

Still, most of the new Senators acknowledge there is a learning curve, from grasping the complex rules and procedures to getting acclimated to the Senate schedule.

“The stereotypes are true,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a former Representative who has made his mark in the chamber as a strict presiding officer. “The Senate moves more slowly than the House, and that takes some adjustment.”

“You have to get used to the structure over here where you have no rules versus all the rules we operated under [in the House],” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another former House Member. “You just have to know and understand that any issue can come up at any time.”

Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) said one of the toughest adjustments is becoming accustomed to the Senate schedule and the higher profile that accompanies the job.

“You just have to adjust to the fact there is probably going to be press every time you visit a school or read to kids,” said Talent, a former House Member. “We are adjusting pretty well, trying to learn all the new procedures.”

Perhaps the freshman Senator who has had the hardest time adjusting is the one who sits across the aisle from his GOP counterparts, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Lautenberg returned for an encore after his longtime nemesis, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), decided to retire in 2002 rather than risk defeat. Lautenberg stepped in and kept the seat in Democratic hands only to be rewarded with junior status despite his 18 years of seniority in a chamber where he once wielded a committee gavel. But Lautenberg is taking it in stride and makes jokes about being a rookie.

“I feel a little guilty,” Lautenberg said of his efforts to try to sit near the middle of the dais during committee hearings even though he is supposed to sit on the end. “I am afraid somebody is going to holler at me because I am close to the center of the table.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.