Capitol Letter: Will Bill Frist Remain Saintly?

UIt was one of the great whodunits on Capitol Hill. While the homeland-security bill was being drawn up, someone tucked in two paragraphs to shield the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly from lawsuits brought by parents convinced that a preservative used in the company's vaccines caused autism in their children.

The provision, along with two other special-interest pleadings slipped in by the GOP House leadership, almost derailed the bill.

To quell a rebellion led by moderate Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, then incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott promised to revisit the issue when Congress returns in January, implying that he would find a way to cancel out the offending provision. Now that Lott is history, the big question is whether his successor, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, will honor that commitment.

Frist is riding one of the biggest public-relations bonanzas in modern times. Regularly touted as the Senate's only physician, a man of great personal fortune who donates his time to AIDS patients in Africa, Frist is the poster boy for President Bush's compassionate conservatism. Yet when disgruntled Republicans looked among themselves for the author of the Eli Lilly sweetheart deal, nobody stepped forward, and certainly not the esteemed and ethical Dr. Frist. He stayed quiet as speculation centered on White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels, an executive with Eli Lilly before joining the administration. Daniels denied any involvement.

Indiana Republican Dan Burton, who chairs the Government Reform Committee and who has a grandson who suffers from autism, threatened to hold hearings. The liberal Web site TomPaine.com offered a $10,000 reward for "the Eli Lilly bandit."

The Lott imbroglio diverted attention from the mystery, but not for long. As reporters delved into the legislative background of the man who would replace Lott, the trail led to none other than Frist as the anonymous author. In retrospect, Frist should have been easy to finger. He had written similar language and tried to attach it to legislation once before, and he had praised the provision's intent in congressional debate.

The real mystery is why the revelation caused so little stir. Eli Lilly was a major underwriter of Republican candidates in the last election, and Frist, who oversaw the Senate campaigns, was blatantly returning the favor. He's no Mr. Clean, but he got a pass from the media and his political opponents.

Frist is not your grandfather's, or even your father's, Republican. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Trent Lott were easy targets, their faults up-front and personal. Who Frist really is and how he will balance his party's political interests with his personal predilections as a physician will be put to the test in the coming months. Lott had promised conservatives that he would take up a partial-birth-abortion ban, perhaps as early as February. Frist has a strong pro-life voting record, but as a medical doctor, he knows the debate over late-term abortions is more complex than a simple ban. Will he put off the issue?

Another issue where Frist's scientific background and conservative impulses will clash is cloning. Everybody agrees there should be a ban on human cloning, but the GOP's right wing wants to also ban the cloning of human embryos for medical research. Frist recently visited the Massachusetts company that is in the forefront of such research, alarming his party's true believers and indicating that he may have an open mind on the subject.

Even though Bush is king of the Hill, it still takes 60 votes to pass anything even remotely contentious through the Senate, and the Republicans only have 51 seats. Getting the economy going is a priority for both parties, but Frist will have to contend with the charge that Bush's plan to eliminate the taxation of dividends mostly benefits the rich. Will Frist also seek the elimination of the estate tax, which will cost the Treasury billions and affect only a small number of exceedingly well-off families?

Casualties of what could be called Frist's compassionate confrontation are some of the more conservative judges stalled by the Democrats that the GOP was looking forward to confirming. A former Jesse Helms staffer, Judge Terrence Boyle, was blocked by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the last Congress. Another nominee for the Circuit Court, Judge Carolyn Kuhl, pushed to reinstate the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University and other racially discriminatory schools when she was a Justice Department staffer in the Reagan administration. California Sen. Barbara Boxer blocked her.

If Frist backs off, he will invite the wrath of the right. If he presses ahead, he will inflame partisan passions that he professes to soothe. Either way, Saint Frist will lose his halo.

O LITTLE TOWN OF CRAWFORD

To underscore that he's not a captive of Washington, President Bush's Christmas card this year is postmarked Crawford, Texas, although the return address reads, "The White House, Washington, D.C. 20500." But the record 1.7 million cards the Bushes sent were too much to handle for the Crawford post office, which is a two-person operation. To accommodate Bush's down-home image, the post office arranged for the cards to be stamped in Austin, where a special dye was ordered to authenticate the Crawford postmark. Bush, who spent Christmas at Camp David, is apparently the first president to insist on an out-of-town postmark.

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