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.
The added factor is the worst hostility between Republican and Democratic leaders since I began Senate-watching in 1957. Frist broke precedent by traveling to South Dakota to campaign against Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's re-election. Republicans who must deal with Daschle regard him as one of the coldest men they have met in politics, who truly subscribes to the Kennedy clan's axiom of "Don't get mad, get even." Daschle could not conceal his glee two weeks ago in humiliating Frist on the class action bill.
While it is easier to be a minority leader than a majority leader, Democratic command in the Senate is still remarkable. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, who lives on the Senate floor, controls day-to-day operations more effectively than anybody in the majority. What's more, Daschle and Reid are leading Democrats who are more closely unified than their Republican counterparts.
Some junior Republican senators look to Majority Whip Mitch McConnell as a more knowledgeable and skilled parliamentary battler than Frist. But McConnell has not fulfilled hopes, when he became whip after the 2002 election, that he would be Harry Reid's constant shadow on the Senate floor. He underwent triple-bypass heart surgery in February 2003 just as he was taking on his new duties, and he may not have yet recovered his full powers.
The finger-pointing by Republican senators is natural. How could they lose the class action bill when they had a clear majority? How could they fail to win a majority on the gay marriage amendment? How could they fail to pass a budget? Why did they succumb to Teddy Kennedy on the tobacco buyout? The answers revolve around the caliber of leadership.