Capital Letters: Frist Gets Healthy

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Dr. and President?

These days, it's a longshot for a president to come from the Senate. John F. Kennedy was the latest to succeed where John F. Kerry most recently failed. But there are still plenty of aspirants: Senators Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, John McCain and Chuck Hagel have all made moves in recent weeks to shore up their credentials. Perhaps the most interesting person to watch right now is Majority Leader Bill Frist. The doctor turned legislator is leaving in 2006, keeping his long-standing plans to retire from the Senate after two terms. Frist has to conduct a delicate balancing act: Push Bush's agenda while making a name for himself. There's already been some grumbling that he's too eager to raise his profile, by attending things like the World Economic Forum in Davos, rather than directing legislation. The leadership post gives Frist a megaphone to broadcast his ideas, but also the responsibility and potential blame if he can't get Bush's proposals through Congress.

One place where the interests of Bush and Frist are particularly intertwined is health care. The Bush Administration has sought to redefine health care in much the same way they're trying to rework Social Security, pushing for changes such as health savings accounts that offers Americans both the control and risk of managing their own well-being. Frist has been a strong supporter and has laid many other ideas that are in the budget the White House released on Monday, including improved medical technology, putting more kids on government-funded programs for low-income children and increasing funds to combat HIV/AIDS. The former heart surgeon also has some ideas the White House hasn't yet put out, including a plan that would create a health-care structure similar to what Fannie Mae does for mortgages. This week Frist testified before Congress about his trip to support tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka and attended a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies HIV/AIDS task force, where he proposed a global health corps, modeled on the Peace Corps, that would send Americans to work on public health projects in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Health care could be an issue that defines Frist as a "compassionate" Republican, like education reform did for Bush in 2000.

Study Group

Last weekend a group of more than 50 conservatives called the House Republican Study Committee gathered for their annual retreat at the Marriot Hotel in Baltimore. Despite their modest name, the group is composed of some of the Capitol's staunchest conservatives. In Bush's first term, they quietly complained about policies they abhorred, such as Bush's education law that widely expanded the reach out of the federal government into determining how local schools measured success and huge expansion of Medicare. They're quiet no more. The group, led by Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, put a statement of principles following their retreat that called on Bush to allow for larger personal accounts in his Social Security plan, permit no tax increases to pay for Social Security, aggressively push for a federal gay marriage ban and drastically cut spending. "House conservatives have never been as important in terms of policy influence as on this issue," said Pence, highlighting the group's plans on Social Security.

Strange Bedfellows

Speaking of Pence, the right-leaning third-term Congressman usually has little common ground with the left-leaning New York Times Editorial page. But last week the paper of record found time to praise Pence for co-sponsoring legislation that would impose tighter guidelines on prosecutors who want to force reporters to testify about confidential sources. Many states have these laws already, but over the last year several reporters, including the New York Times' Judith Miller and TIME's Matt Cooper, have been ordered to divulge sources or face jail time. The Times said "We agree strongly with Mr. Pence that journalists' promises of confidentiality are essential to the flow of information the public needs about its government."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Legislation

Whether you think Social Security is a "challenge," (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi), "a big problem" (Frist), is nearly going "bankrupt" (President Bush) or a "crisis situation" (House Majority Leader Tom Delay), one of the crucial weapons in the debate has been the choice of words used to talk about it. President Bush, for example, has shifted from "private accounts" to "personal accounts" to "voluntary personal retirement accounts" in his State of the Union address. Polling has encouraged the White House to use the term "personalization" rather than "privatization" on Social Security. But Democrats have to master the language to, and screaming "privatization," which many of them have been for weeks, probably isn't enough. "Privatization is not a dirty word," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who advised the John Kerry campaign, describing public feelings on Social Security. "Benefit cuts are a dirty phrase. Adding to the deficit is a dirty phrase."