WASHINGTON -- Majority Leader Bill Frist lost his customary smile last Tuesday in addressing the weekly meeting of Republican senators. The rich and handsome surgeon from Nashville, who once seemed much younger, now looked older than his 52 years. "Ya'll got to help me," he pleaded. Colleagues thought their leader had been missing some sleep.
Frist had an excuse for looking haggard. He was in the middle of two of the worst weeks for any Senate leader in memory. Republicans pulled defeat from the jaws of victory when Democrats killed a bill to curb trial lawyers. That was followed by last week's fiasco, when Republicans could not even win a simple majority to ban homosexual marriages. The 49-member Democratic minority was running the Senate.
Senate disarray is only one part of Republican malaise. George W. Bush is viewed by his own party's loyalists as sounding an uncertain trumpet, and GOP senators marvel that John Kerry has not forged well ahead in the polls. But especially in the tight little world of the Senate, Democrats are in the driver's seat. They have blocked President Bush's federal judicial nominees, and Republicans have been unable to pass a budget.
Frist is more pitied than condemned. He was a leading future presidential prospect a year and a half ago when he became majority leader replacing Trent Lott, who was the victim of Democratic viciousness and Bush's non-support. Senate majority leader may be the toughest job in Washington, lacking the Rules Committee discipline that brings order to the House, or a president's ability to hide his mistakes. The Senate leader stands nakedly open to attack, and Frist assumed the leadership with less legislative experience than any predecessor in memory.
Nevertheless, Republicans have been on a catastrophic course. Multiple parliamentary blunders transformed a solid Senate majority for the class action lawsuit bill into a failed attempt for 60 votes to impose cloture. Republican senators were even more baffled and dismayed by the tactical train wreck on gay marriage when Republicans could collect only 48 votes.
Grumbling in the Senate Republican cloakroom began well before that. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's carefully constructed plan to block Bush's judges has stymied Frist, who fired the aide who discovered Democratic memos revealing the grand design. A long-stalled tax bill broke free last week when Republicans agreed to Kennedy's huge tobacco buyout. The message: Nothing important clears the Senate without Teddy Kennedy's OK.