Frist Under Fire

Posted November 7, 2003 at 6:23pm

In their starkest criticism of Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) 10-month stewardship of the chamber, Senate Democrats accused Republicans of turning the floor into a “carnival” filled with rampant “mismanagement” and “rank, amateur” leadership.

While focusing most of their remarks on the GOP decision to hold a 30-hour marathon judicial debate spread over three days this week, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday previewed what will be their continuing theme in the closing weeks of this session.

They accused GOP leaders of trying to shut them out of this week’s 30-hour debate, beginning Wednesday evening, accused them of ducking critical issues in favor of the four filibusters Democrats have launched on judicial nominees and said Republicans had made it impossible to meet the target Nov. 21 adjournment.

“This is a carnival,” Reid said Friday, correcting reporters who tried to characterize the pending debate as anything else. “Carnival, carnival.”

Whether the Democrats get half the time for debate or not, Daschle said his troops would be on hand, and aides were preparing a 24-hour media communications “action room” just off the floor.

“We’ll have a presence on the floor,” Daschle said.

GOP aides immediately dismissed the Democratic attacks and said they still have every intention of dividing up the debate time.

“Made up out of whole cloth,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said of the debate charge. “Every conversation we’ve had with them has been clear that we would split the time.”

Three hours after the charges from Daschle and Reid, Frist reiterated his pledge on the Senate floor to include Democrats in the debate, which drew a thank-you from Reid. “We look forward to an active debate on both sides of the aisle,” Frist said.

Regardless of their participation level in the debate, Democrats contend that the debate over four of President Bush’s judicial nominees is an example of what they’re billing as “misplaced priorities” by Frist and the GOP leaders.

“They’re concerned about four jobs. We’re concerned about 3.5 million jobs,” Daschle said of the debate on nominations.

Democrats say that they agreed to a full day’s work today and Tuesday, which is Veterans Day, with the assurance that Congress could wrap up its work by Nov. 21.

After that, Democrats say, they were informed of the plan to hold 30 straight hours of debate on judicial nominations, from roughly 6 p.m. Wednesday to midnight Thursday, followed by four votes Friday on judicial issues.

“They want to take a little vacation from appropriations,” Daschle said.

Republicans say Frist made clear that his plan was to take up appropriations bills Friday, today, Tuesday and part of Wednesday, and never gave any assurance that the legislative agenda would be all appropriations this week.

“There was no double-cross,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

And Republicans contend that it is Democrats who are now using the upcoming judicial debate as a way to gum up the works, delaying bills on Friday in an effort to force Republicans into a choice the middle of this week to either conduct the must-do appropriations or abandon that in favor of the now highly publicized judge-a-thon.

Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, vowed that the Senate would get its work done. “We’re still getting out Nov. 21 — you heard it here,” McConnell said, pointing to himself.

In ratcheting up their attacks, Daschle and Reid went the furthest Democrats have ever gone in publicly criticizing Frist’s management style. In recent months, Democrats have been very outspoken in their attacks but have mostly focused on Bush, whose standing in the public polls has fallen from its stratospheric post-Sept. 11 days.

Reid, in particular, went the furthest in his attacks. Without directly naming Frist, Reid said he was witnessing “such amateur leadership,” the worst he’d seen in 21 years in Congress, repeating the phrase “rank, amateur leadership” a couple of times.

Daschle cited a host of issues that appeared to be falling by the wayside in the session’s waning moments in contrast to the pending judicial debate as “yet another example of the mismanagement” of the Senate.

In 2002, when Democrats were in control, Daschle endured countless attacks on him and his management style, jousting throughout the session with then-Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who would blast “Daschlecrats” or “Daschle obstructionism.”

In this Congress the partisanship has been high in the nearly evenly divided chamber, but the two leaders have generally avoided outward criticism of one another. Daschle, for example, would often avoid directly criticizing Frist when asked for his assessment of how the new leader was handling the job, often complaining that his counterpart’s problems were with the conservative fringe in his conference or with an obstinate White House that didn’t want compromise.

Now the gloves appear to have come off. As one Democratic aide put it in describing Frist, “He’s just not managing the place.”

Republicans have grown furious with the attacks on Frist, and have returned an equally high volume of attacks on Democrats, particularly over the leaked minority memo from the Intelligence Committee on political advantages to the majority’s handling of the war on terror.

Frist took to the floor Friday to personally demand that the Democratic staffer or staffers who wrote the report “step forward” and that the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), “disavow” the memo and then offer a personal apology to Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

The judicial debate should serve as a ground zero for heightened partisanship this week, with Democrats increasingly on the offensive and ready to test drive their message of jobs and health care as opposed to four filibusters.

“We’ll have that debate any day,” Daschle said.