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The Senate: When Will Bill Frist Start Knocking Heads?

The Republican faithful considered Tennessee Senator Bill Frist a godsend when he became Senate Majority Leader last January. After Senator Trent Lott's fall from grace, the heart-surgeon-turned-pol seemed just the ticket to restore the party's compassionate conservative credentials.

But in his first three months in office, Frist has failed to live up to expectations. A raft of proposals -- from President George W. Bush's ambitious tax cut to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the nomination of Hispanic conservative Miguel Estrada for the Court of Appeals -- have foundered on Frist's watch.

What really hurts Frist is that most of his critics are fellow Republicans. GOP senators complain that he's too close to the Bushies. And House conservatives fault him for being too soft on party moderates who have stymied the President's agenda.

Unlike his more pragmatic predecessors Lott and ex-Senator Bob Dole, Frist seems to emphasize conviction over compromise. Case in point: Twice he brought Estrada's nomination to the Senate floor even though he lacked the votes to break a Democratic filibuster. "In his mind, you have to take a principled stand on an issue and not back down in the face of Democratic obstructionism," says a top Senate Republican aide.

But such back-to-back defeats make Frist appear more weak than principled. And there have been other setbacks that, while not entirely his fault, happened under his tenure. He failed to prevent the Senate from stripping the President's faith-based initiative of core provisions that would have made it easier for religious groups to win social-service contracts. Frist was also unable to forge a compromise with key Democrats over limiting payouts in medical-malpractice suits. But the most stinging defeat by far was his inability to persuade four Republican senators to support the President's $726 billion tax cut. GOP moderates effectively chopped it to $350 billion -- at least for now (page 30).

Frist hasn't been a complete washout. He handed the Religious Right a victory by winning passage of a ban on partial-birth abortions. And he helped persuade the President to seek $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS in the developing world -- though Senate funding still has not been secured. He also pushed a supplemental spending bill for the war in Iraq through the Senate in record time.

Nor is everyone unhappy with Frist's leadership style. "He lets me know where he and the Administration stand," says Arizona GOP Senator John McCain, who voted against a tax cut of any size. "But he doesn't pressure me. He knows it wouldn't work."

That's part of the problem, gripe some conservatives, who fault the amiable Frist for being insufficiently tough on party moderates, especially when it comes to tax cuts. Says House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.): "This goes right to the heart of our ability to work together." Others complain that Frist too often takes his legislative cues from the same pushy White House that promoted him as the right replacement when Lott was tottering. "Some of his colleagues still see him as the President's representative," says Norman J. Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "He can't let that impression linger."

Of course, Frist will have plenty of chances to recover. He could pass two top priorities: reforming Medicare and at last devising a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. Meantime, the White House is putting the heat on him to pump the tax cut back up to $550 billion. If Doc Frist can deliver the goods on that issue, he'd go a long way toward putting to rest the criticism that he's not the healthy choice to lead a divided Senate. California Governor Gray Davis' popularity plummeted to 24% in an Apr. 1-6 Field Poll, the lowest job approval rating of any Golden State governor in history. But Republicans shouldn't get too excited: Voters are not that happy about a right-wing recall campaign. And even if Davis were to be removed, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz M. Bustamante tops Republican dream candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger in a hypothetical match-up to replace Davis. After providing content-delivery services for the new Web site of Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, Akamai Technologies pulled the plug in early April. Al Jazeera insiders suggest that Akamai did so because of political pressure. They point out that CEO George Conrades sits on a Presidential panel that advises the White House on computer security and that the FBI is among Akamai's other clients. Akamai confirms that it cut Al Jazeera off but would not say why. If you can't find your GOP senator on Apr. 30, try the National Republican Senatorial Committee. NRSC Chairman George Allen (R-Va.) is summoning colleagues to party headquarters that day to dial for dollars. Senators are asked to drum up checks of $2,500 or more for the annual President's Dinner, set for May 21. Senators must go to the NRSC because campaign-finance laws prohibit them from raising funds in their own offices. Republicans expect the dinner to raise as much as $7 million.

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