Frist's unhappy Easter

Posted: Apr 21, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

When the word seeped out about the Senate commitment, Hastert and other House Republicans were furious and complained Frist had betrayed them. Frist's colleagues in the Republican leadership -- Majority Whip Mitch McConnell and Conference Chairman Rick Santorum -- were nearly as unhappy. Frist did not diminish the animosity when he skipped a bicameral meeting of GOP leaders Saturday, April 12, though he could have made it before leaving for Asia.

Frist was informed via trans-Pacific telephone of the havoc left behind, and issued a statement asserting that "I should have immediately passed on to the House leadership" the Senate deal. The majority leader added, in an early version dispatched by e-mail, that "not doing so created confusion" (though this was omitted from the final version). He pledged to still seek "the biggest growth package in line with the president's request," though how this is possible in view of the $350 billion pledge is unclear.

Frist had better figure it out, however, or face big trouble in the Senate. "They got Olympia Snowe, but they lost Lindsey Graham," was Graham's comment to colleagues. "I don't feel bound by this deal," Graham told me. "I'm not going to vote for this. We'll have a (tax) bill that meets the president's specification, or we'll have no bill at all." He added, "Conservatives can control spending and cut taxes. If we don't, we are drifting." The feisty South Carolinian made clear that Frist is no Gingrich, but that this fiasco cannot be repeated.

House Republican leaders blame old hands like Grassley and Nickles rather than the inexperienced Frist, who was frantic to pass a budget resolution and to start the Easter recess promptly. "We have three or four weeks to solve this problem," Blunt told me. That means putting on the president's desk a tax cut around $550 billion. If he does not undo what he did April 10, Bill Frist will be in real trouble.