Frist Eyes Message Overhaul

Posted June 14, 2005 at 6:38pm

Seeking to burnish his party’s credentials on domestic issues, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has formed a new task force whose mission is to help define the GOP’s agenda and message in the coming months.

The creation of the group follows on the heels of the contentious debate over President Bush’s judicial nominations, and more than two months after Congress intervened in the Terri Schiavo case.

There is concern among some Republicans that the party has focused too much attention on social issues and not enough time concentrating on topics that matter to a broader swath of people.

Senate Republicans are ramping up their message operation just as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) press office has established itself as the control room for the Democratic Party’s daily and long-term communications efforts. Democrats have taken to calling Reid’s aggressive operation “the war room.”

The Republican task force is charged with sharpening the party’s message and promoting its successes and goals on domestic issues.

“The leader asked us to do it,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who, along with Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), is heading the task force. “He was concerned, as I think we all are, that the Senate has lost a little focus here and we need to get back to an agenda that affects everyday lives and everyday Americans.”

The task force’s first assignment is to work with Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) to help develop a message centered on the need for Congress to rewrite the nation’s energy policy.

Following the energy bill, the task force will develop a message plan on strengthening border security as well as “making health care affordable, especially for people who run small businesses,” Gregg said.

The creation of the task force is expected to buttress existing communications operations headed by Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), the conference’s vice chairwoman. Santorum is seeking re-election in 2006, while Hutchison, whose seat is also up next year, is considering running for governor.

“This is coordinated communications, broadening it out,” said Bob Stevenson, a Frist spokesman. “We have a lot of talented people in our caucus and this is one way to take advantage of their talents.”

The showdown over judges and the Schiavo case came at a time when Republicans were achieving legislative successes in the chamber, passing bills to restructure the nation’s bankruptcy laws and limit class-action lawsuits, as well as a budget resolution and a supplemental appropriations bill to help fund military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the GOP hit a bump in the road in March when Congress tried to intervene in the Schiavo matter largely at the behest of Republican Congressional leaders, including Frist and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas).

The battle over judges last month consumed valuable floor time and nearly led to a meltdown in the Senate.

Frist was on the verge of trying to eliminate the judicial filibuster through a rules change, a proposal eagerly backed by conservative religious organizations. Religious leaders viewed the rules change as an opportunity to make it easier for conservative, anti-abortion rights nominees to be confirmed for seats on the federal bench.

But a bipartisan compromise was reached at the 11th hour, averting an all-out war between the two parties — for now.

“I think there has been some message distraction,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). “Terri Schiavo for one. We have accomplished quite a great deal and the resolution of the judges thing is going to finally sink in on people that at least the Republicans are in control of the Senate and we are going to accomplish a great deal more.”

Even one of the most vocal proponents of eliminating the judicial filibuster, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), acknowledged some of his colleagues were concerned that the judicial battle was distracting the party from addressing other pressing issues.

“I think one of the reasons we are talking about energy this week [is] we need both the perception and the reality of doing things that affect the quality of life of people across America, and while some people care passionately about judges it is clear others thought we were neglecting important work,” Cornyn said. “And I think we are making a midcourse correction here, and hopefully we will be successful.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) is one of several GOP Senators who said they are glad the focus has shifted away from a showdown on judges to other legislative priorities.

“I think the judge [debate] took all the air out of the Senate, and now we got a chance to start over with the energy bill and other things,” said Graham, one of the architects of the bipartisan deal reached on Bush’s judicial nominees. “So that is good. That is one of the benefits of the compromise — we can actually shift our focus.”

Frist’s decision to hone the GOP message comes as all 55 Republican Senators have been invited to the White House for a strategy meeting with Bush next week. The president continues to pressure Congress to retool the Social Security system — a proposal that is being met with skepticism from the public and some members of his own party.

Despite growing disillusionment about U.S. involvement in Iraq and efforts to overhaul Social Security, Bush is not at a point where he has lost the confidence of Capitol Hill Republicans, a GOP leadership aide said.

“He is only six months into his second term and he has got a long time to go,” said the aide, who spoke freely on the condition of anonymity. “The power of the White House is significant.”