Friday, May 5, 2006

Bill Frist: Leader of the Party That Can't Do Anything Right

And this guy wants to be President?
NY Times) WASHINGTON, May 4 — Senate Republicans were frantic. Returning from a two-week recess that had been dominated by a spike in gasoline prices — and heading into a midterm election looking increasingly good for Democrats — they began scrambling for ways to calm angry voters.

The date was Wednesday, April 26. Inside the Capitol complex, Senator John Thune, a first-term Republican from South Dakota, pressed his idea for a gas-tax holiday before a handful of colleagues who called themselves the Energy Working Group. But the group rejected the idea, leaving aides to the Republican leader, Senator Bill Frist, groping for another way to address the issue.

That night, Mr. Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, and a handful of other Senate staff members — the worker bees who drive the machinery of Congress while their bosses take either the credit or the heat — came up with their own version of an idea that had been circulating among Democrats: a rebate to taxpayers, in this case for $100. Mr. Frist signed off and made plans to introduce it at a news conference the next day.

But the idea, part of a larger eight-point plan, fell flat. It was ridiculed by consumers and scorned by fellow Republicans in and out of Congress, including some of the seven senators who, like Mr. Thune, had stood beside Mr. Frist to announce it.

"I never was in favor of that," Mr. Thune said Thursday. "We all got out there and tried to put our best face on it."

The rise and fall of the Republican $100 rebate offers a window on how Washington sometimes works in a slapdash way, featuring in this case Congressional aides who misread the political climate and lawmakers desperate to hang onto their jobs. It is a story, as well, of how concepts and plans can be reduced to sound bites that make them seem absurd.

And it is yet another example of how Senator Frist, who is contemplating a bid for the White House in 2008, has stumbled at the pinnacle of Senate power.

Mr. Frist failed to air the plan with all of his Republican colleagues, a serious oversight in the eyes of lawmakers who were caught off guard when they heard about it. One Republican, Senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, said that after he caught wind of it he quietly tried to steer leadership aides away. "I made it clear in no uncertain terms to some of the staff that this was bad politics and bad policy," Mr. Sununu said.

Without feeling invested in the rebate, senators felt free to criticize it publicly. One of the first to do so, Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, acknowledged that Mr. Frist had been hurt by the episode. But he said there were other victims as well.

"I think it hurt all of us," Mr. Cornyn said, referring to his Republican colleagues. "It appeared to be a nonserious response to a serious problem."

The story of the $100 rebate began with a proposal from Democrats, who are trying to use the high price of gasoline against Republicans. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, was pushing his own proposal for a gas-tax holiday, different from Mr. Thune's, and Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, had been promoting a $500 rebate. The Democrats were trying to attach their proposals as amendments to an emergency spending bill.

Senate Republicans, fearing they would be forced into the uncomfortable position of voting against the Democratic amendments, began pushing Mr. Frist to come up with an alternative. That set the stage for the April 26 meeting of the Energy Working Group, where Mr. Thune pitched his idea for a temporary suspension of the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax.

But it was rejected as unworkable, partly because there were no guarantees that the oil companies would pass the saving onto consumers, partly because the tax pays for federal highway projects, and partly because many Republicans say the only answer to the problem of high gas prices is to increase supply. (read more)

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