The Magazine

Bush's Men on the Hill

The president chooses his eyes and ears in Congress

Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By MATTHEW REES
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WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH was running for president, he maintained an arms-length relationship with congressional Republicans. Today, he's aggressively courting them. During his first week in office, he met with scores of members, and late last week he attended a GOP retreat in Williams-burg, Virginia. Bush has also hired a claque of esteemed congressional staffers to work in his legislative affairs office, a move guaranteed to build goodwill with Republicans.

But even more important for Bush's relations with the GOP is who he will be turning to as formal and informal liaisons with Capitol Hill -- notably senator Bill Frist of Tennessee and representative Rob Portman of Ohio. While their roles are still evolving, it's clear they will be Bush's eyes and ears in Congress, alerting him and his aides to the mood on Capitol Hill and giving advice on routine matters like who's susceptible to lobbying on tough votes, when to press forward with particular legislation, and when to pull back. Portman's efforts will complement those of Roy Blunt, the House GOP's talented chief deputy whip and Bush's official liaison to the House.

While little known beyond Congress, Frist and Portman are natural choices. Like Bush, they came late to elective office, yet entered at a high level. Frist had never run for anything before knocking off a veteran incumbent senator, Jim Sasser, in 1994 (Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, was among those who encouraged Frist to run). As for Portman, his political experience before his election to Congress in 1993 consisted of staff jobs in the Bush White House. Portman and Frist are also like Bush in that they bring a mild-mannered approach to politics; from a conservative foundation, they emphasize bipartisanship and place a premium on achievement. And all three hold Ivy League degrees: Bush went to Yale and Harvard Business School, Frist to Princeton and Harvard Medical School, and Portman to Dartmouth.

Both Frist and Portman command respect from their peers on the Hill and hold leadership positions in their respective caucuses. Frist recently ran unopposed for chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign arm, while Portman was tapped by speaker Denny Hastert last month to be chairman of the House leadership, a position that guarantees a White House ally will always be present when House leaders are crafting strategy.

Frist is best known for his background as a surgeon who's performed over 200 heart and lung transplants (he is the first doctor elected to the Senate since 1928). During his first term, he labored on a number of important but obscure health issues and often found himself overshadowed by Tennessee's other Republican senator, Fred Thompson.

That changed last summer, when Bush made him his Senate liaison following the death of senator Paul Coverdell. Frist was sufficiently unacquainted with Bush that just a few months earlier he'd stood in line at a Republican fund-raiser to have his picture taken with the candidate, but he quickly established himself as a Coverdell-like figure who could assume ownership of issues without alienating his famously turf-conscious colleagues. And during the Republican convention, he co-chaired the hearings of the platform committee at the request of Josh Bolten, the campaign's policy director and now a deputy chief of staff in the White House. The usually unruly proceedings came off without a hitch, with Frist adroitly navigating the contentious debate on education.

Frist stayed active for Bush in the general election campaign, setting up weekly conference calls for his Senate GOP colleagues to speak with top Bush aides and mediating between Congress and the Bush campaign over the details of the patients' bill of rights legislation. More important, because he was up for reelection against a weak opponent, he was able to synchronize his advertising with Bush's, giving the Texas governor a little-noticed boost that even the Gore campaign completely missed. His labors paid off, as Tennessee, Gore's ostensible home state, went for Bush.

Frist's work ethic is the stuff of Senate legend. Aides regularly receive e-mail missives at 2 or 3 A.M. Partly this reflects the idealism of one still new to politics. But Frist also keeps a peculiar schedule: One night a week he simply goes without sleep, a habit left over from his days as a heart surgeon. His sleep pattern may also explain how, despite his Senate workload, he finds time to write (he co-authored a book, published in 1999, that profiled 17 Tennessee senators), travel (he leads regular medical missions to Africa), and exercise (he runs a marathon about every six months).