Frist Seeks to Limit Damage

Posted April 18, 2003 at 5:27pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is taking the direct approach in repairing strained relations with House Republican leaders: pleading for forgiveness.

In both words and action, Frist and his aides are going to great lengths to patch things up with House leaders who feel betrayed over Senate Republicans’ side deal on tax cuts.

“We blew the call and we’re not afraid to admit that,” said Eric Ueland, a senior adviser to Frist. “We take our relationship with the Speaker seriously. If they have a problem, we have a problem.”

Aides to Frist spent the latter part of last week working with top staff to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) trying to set up a detente meeting between the two leadership teams. Frist, Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) are all expected to attend the meeting, which could come as early as Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Aides said it remained unclear who else would be at the table and where everyone will be sitting, but one thing was clear: The meeting will be in the Speaker’s office, with Hastert firmly in charge.

Not much else has been planned in efforts to cool the simmering tensions between the two sides, a task made difficult by Frist’s trip to the Far East and other leaders’ travels home during the two-week spring recess. But Frist’s office went out of its way late last week to verbally appease House leaders, particularly Hastert, in terms that were quite extraordinary considering the historical relationship between the “upper” and “lower” chambers.

Ueland, using a phrase now favored by the newly deferential Frist, repeatedly referred to Hastert as “the senior partner” in the Speaker-leader relationship. He said that Hastert, DeLay and other House GOP leaders expressed an “appropriate level” of disgust with Frist after Senate leaders did not inform their House counterparts of a side deal negotiated between Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Olympia Snowe

(R-Maine), a deal Frist and Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) signed off on.

House leaders went ballistic upon learning of the deal nearly 24 hours after it had been hammered out on the Senate floor, with Hastert, in a prepared statement, calling Grassley “irrelevant” and DeLay holding a press conference for the sole purpose of excoriating Senate Republicans. By late last week, House Republicans were beginning to cool down with regard to the deal, which will make it difficult if not impossible to move above $350 billion in tax cuts, a major domestic defeat for President Bush.

“The fact of the matter is that we have to work together,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. “We agree with Senator Frist on every issue and we’re going to work together to enact the president’s agenda.”

The first conciliatory steps actually occurred before lawmakers left town. Frist and Nickles called House leaders Friday evening to apologize.

And in terms of the Speaker-leader partnership, House and Senate aides say the two had been getting along fairly well before the tax-cut rift, despite their lack of a pre-existing relationship when Frist took the leader’s post Jan. 7. The two have been meeting at least once a week since the Tennessean became Majority Leader and more often when big-ticket items are up; they met more than five times in the week before recess, aides said.

Two weeks before the recess, Frist flew to Illinois to headline a fundraiser for the Speaker. And, on an almost weekly basis, the duo have performed their own Congressional version of the “Fireside Chats,” billed as the “Denny and Doc Show” in appearances with conservative talk-radio hosts such as Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.

“I think a lot more was made of the rift than exists,” said a senior House Republican leadership aide. “We have to kind of take a step back and get a little perspective. The Senate doesn’t move as fast we do and we get frustrated by that, but that’s an institutional problem.”

If the two sides are willing to let bygones be bygones, at least temporarily, even more hard work lies ahead of them in hammering out a tax-cut deal that can pass both chambers, with Frist now pledging to “enact the biggest growth package in line with the president’s request, period.”

The most combustible mix of tax-cut dynamics, politically speaking, could take place in the Senate Finance Committee, which is tentatively slated to produce a “chairman’s mark” of legislation May 5 and then must vote out its package by May 8.

Besides Voinovich, every other major player involved in the Senate-side deal sits on Finance: Grassley, Snowe, Nickles and Frist. In addition, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), who has been the most vocal Senate critic of Frist, Grassley and Nickles, is a new member of Finance.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said the chairman has every intention of honoring his agreement with Snowe and Voinovich and sticking to the $350 billion deal. “No one’s pressured him to change his mind,” said Jill Gerber, the spokeswoman, who noted that Grassley simply will not break his word. “It would be up to Senators Snowe and Voinovich to release him from his agreement, and we don’t have any indication they are going to do that.”

A spokesman for Snowe said she and Voinovich aren’t backing down either, noting both Senators’ long-term opposition to “ballooning budget deficits.”

“Senator Snowe’s position is based on principle and is completely consistent,” said spokesman Dave Lackey.

If Grassley and Snowe remain stalwart, conservatives on Finance won’t have enough votes to approve a package worth more than $350 billion in tax cuts. But if staunch conservatives on Finance, such as Santorum, reject a $350 billion deal as too little, they could potentially team up with liberal Democrats on the panel to torpedo the entire deal.

Nevertheless, the budget-and-tax mess has tested the House-Senate relationship to possibly the greatest extent since the anthrax attack in October 2001, although the most recent interchamber battle has been fought solely on the Republican side of the aisle.

After the attacks, Hastert and then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) closed the House and sent workers home for almost a week. The Senate, mostly symbolically, stayed open for business, leading many House leaders to accuse Senators of trying to upstage them.

“We don’t want to go back there,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide, who noted that, on the Republican side, joint leadership meetings practically disappeared for a year. “Anthrax was a very damaging thing to our relationship.”

Part of the problem so far stems from a certain unfamiliarity with each other. DeLay has been a House leader for more than eight years and Hastert the Speaker since January 1999, but the Senate team is relatively green, with Frist’s only leadership experience being two years as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Also, Frist came straight to the Senate without ever having served in the House.

The Majority Whip, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), is a familiar figure to House leaders, given his two past terms as NRSC leader and his work with House Republicans in fighting new campaign finance laws. But McConnell was sidelined most of February after triple-bypass surgery and had been working only part-time until just before recess.

Only Santorum and Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison

(R-Texas) are in the same leadership positions as they were in the last Congress, and their total leadership experience is “a whopping two years,” as one GOP aide put it.

Santorum, a two-term House Member before winning a Senate seat in 1994, has the best working relationship with House leaders, particularly DeLay, whose conservative firebrand style most closely meshes with Santorum’s among Senate Republicans.

“Rick talks to DeLay rather frequently,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “It’s a rather natural focus.”

But Santorum was out of the loop when the final deal was cut on the Senate floor, after the final votes Thursday evening, April 10. Snowe and Voinovich wouldn’t budge on their $350 billion demand, prompting Frist to go to the Speaker’s office to inform Hastert that he still hadn’t secured at least 50 votes for the package, aides said.

Voinovich and Snowe peeled off into their own conversation, and the Ohioan broached the idea of voting for the budget resolution as long as Grassley agreed to not report anything higher than $350 billion out of Finance.

Snowe said Grassley would never agree, according to a GOP aide familiar with the negotiations. “Why don’t we try?” Voinovich countered.

Grassley agreed, and within minutes Frist and Nickles were huddled with Grassley, Snowe and Voinovich on the floor.

All five shook hands on the deal, several aides said.

But no one told House leaders, and a week later Senate Republicans still weren’t explaining the lack of communication. One senior Senate aide suggested that handshake deals like that are often left unspoken in the Senate, while another suggested it was only a matter of timing as to when Grassley would make his floor statement.

Ueland declined to comment on the reasoning for the lips-sealed deal, only adding: “This was a blown call and the leader feels very regretful about the harm that has been caused.”

In fact, House leaders didn’t learn of the deal until nearly 4 p.m. the next day, when Grassley took to the floor to explain it, prompting top House Republicans to rush into Hastert’s office.

After some frantic discussions, during which some of the House participants were still unclear as to exactly what Grassley and Frist had agreed to, Hastert finally decided to find out for himself.

With only a single aide to fend off the press, the Speaker marched across the Capitol to Frist’s office to find out precisely what had happened.

Next week, Frist will be the one walking back across the Capitol to Hastert’s office.