• U.S.

Frist Behind the ’08 Ball

2 minute read
Massimo Calabresi

It is one of Washington’s open secrets that Senate Republican leader Bill Frist is eyeing the 2008 presidential race. But, as Bob Dole learned in 1996, running the Senate while campaigning for President is a particularly difficult proposition, and Frist’s day job is already getting in the way. George W. Bush last week renominated 12 federal-appeals-court judges that Democrats had blocked in his first term. Frist has threatened to change Senate rules on extended floor debate to prevent Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees again, but Democrats say they will shut down the Senate if the Tennessean tries to make such a move.

That leaves Frist in a bit of a bind. Bush’s ambitious agenda for ’05 is laden with issues that require bipartisan support, such as overhauling Social Security and medical-malpractice laws. But if Frist wants the top half of the ’08 ticket, he will need backing from religious conservatives, who have explicitly tied their support to his efforts to get Bush’s judges confirmed. “It is the ultimate test,” evangelist Pat Robertson said last week at the National Press Club. “[Frist] cannot be a leader and allow Democrats to do what they did in the last session.”

While Democrats are relishing Frist’s dilemma, Republicans are wondering how he will maneuver his way out of it. “It’s a tricky game that Frist has to play,” says a Republican staff member, as the Senate majority leader attempts to straddle the line between compromise and resolve. “I will talk to the Democratic leadership,” Frist said last week, but added that “our obligation is [to] take these judicial nominees and to give [them a vote].”

Having learned at least one lesson from Dole’s experience, Frist will not run for re-election next year, and so will be out of the Senate before the ’08 presidential primaries are under way. But the battle over Bush’s judges will commence long before that. Next week, a few days after the Senate Judiciary Committee starts debate on two of the 12 renominations, Frist is scheduled to speak at a Lincoln-Reagan dinner in New Hampshire, home of the first G.O.P. primary in 2008. –By Massimo Calabresi

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