WASHINGTON -- Travelling through the Orient on his Easter recess, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist cannot be enjoying himself if he appreciates the intensity of two Republican critics back in Washington: freshman Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt.
They are angrier than they admit on the record about Frist's performance just before Congress took its break. He not only accepted an unacceptable limit on President Bush's tax cut but kept it secret while hurrying out of town two weekends ago. Graham and Blunt make clear to colleagues that this is a major transgression that must be corrected and cannot be repeated.
Graham was elected to the Senate from South Carolina only last November, but his reputation in the House should give Frist pause. He led the attempted 1997 coup against then House Speaker Newt Gingrich that failed but fatally weakened him. Blunt's criticism might be even more unsettling for Frist. The low-key Blunt is a party regular who normally would not consider criticizing a fellow Republican leader, especially a senator.
On Thursday, April 10, Frist met in the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The House had trimmed the president's proposed 10-year tax cut of $726 billion to $550 billion, and Hastert vowed he would stick with that figure. Frist indicated he, too, would do his best to stay at that level.
Frist then walked back to the Senate to meet with two rebellious Republican senators, George Voinovich and Olympia Snowe, and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley. Voinovich and Snowe said they would not vote for the pending budget resolution without a pledge that the final tax cut approved later this year would not exceed $350 billion. Grassley, who will be in the Senate-House tax bill conference, agreed to that demand.
Incredibly, Frist went along. Doubly incredibly, he did not notify the White House, House GOP leaders or even members of his own Senate leadership. Nobody was informed until Grassley went to the Senate floor the next day, as Congress was about to recess, to reveal the deal. "At the end of the day," Grassley declared, "the tax cut side of the growth package will not exceed $350 billion." Don Nickles, who as the new Senate Budget Committee chairman was obsessed with passing a budget resolution, vigorously endorsed the limit.