Tennessee Lawmakers Snatch The Spotlight In 2003

Posted on April 18, 2005

Washington — It was a high-profile year for Tennessee's congressional delegation. Sen. Bill Frist was often at the center of the national spotlight as he finished his first year as majority leader. But other Tennessee Republicans managed to attract attention by bucking party leaders. Frist ascended to the No. 1 position in the Senate late last year after former Majority Leader Trent Lott was ousted for making insensitive comments about segregation during a party for Sen. Strom Thurmond. Frist's goals were to overhaul Medicare and give seniors prescription drug benefits. He succeeded and called the bill's recent passage "the best moment" of his nine-year Senate career. But Frist didn't get everything he hoped for. He lost a bid to pass a sweeping energy bill, which included a measure he wrote that would have overhauled the Tennessee Valley Authority's management structure. Frist also was unable to get all President Bush's judicial nominees confirmed in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-48 advantage with one Democratic-leaning independent. Frist also faced criticism for failing to get all the government's spending bills completed by the end of the year, meaning funding the government will consume Senate time in January. Vanderbilt University political scientist Bruce Oppenheimer said Frist should have been able to finish the appropriations bills, especially since Republicans control both chambers. "That's the meat and potatoes that you've got to get done," he said. Frist's chief political rival, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, gave Frist a "passing grade" for his first year at the helm. But Tennessee's junior senator was hardly in the shadows as Frist made national news. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander got plenty of attention, largely for speaking out against policies favored by GOP leaders and the White House. Alexander railed on the Senate floor against tariffs the Bush administration imposed, but eventually lifted, on steel imports. He complained the tariffs would hurt Tennessee's auto manufacturing industry. The former governor also spoke out against White House proposals to reduce power plant emissions and revamp the Head Start early childhood education program. Alexander said the White House clean air proposal didn't go far enough fast enough and backed a stricter approach. Alexander said he challenged the president because of the smog problem in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "If when you look at the mountains, you see the air instead - we've got problems," Alexander said. In the House, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Chattanooga, also took a stand against GOP leaders by voting against the Medicare bill, saying it was too expensive. Republicans needed every vote they could get, and the bill narrowly passed 220-215. Wamp also irked party leaders this year by pressing to make billions of dollars in aid to Iraq a loan rather than a grant. In the event, Wamp backed down and endorsed the aid at the urging of the president. Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, did go his own way on Iraq. Duncan, who opposed the war from the beginning, was one of just five Republicans to vote against spending $87 billion to help fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and help rebuild that country. Duncan's independent streak may hurt his bid to secure a committee chairmanship. The nine-term lawmaker was a top contender this year to assume the chairmanship of the House Resources Committee. He lost out to a less senior member, Californian Richard Pombo, a close ally of House Majority Leader Tom Delay. "I can't just surrender my voting card because it could help me get a chairmanship down the road," Duncan said just before voting against the Iraq spending bill in October. Tennessee's three House freshmen generally did not grab the spotlight, which is typical of first-term lawmakers. The freshmen are Reps. Marsha Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican, Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Nashville, and Lincoln Davis, a Democrat from Pall Mall. Cooper previously was congressman for the state's 4th District before giving up the seat to unsuccessfully run for the Senate. All three are expected to hang on to their seats in the upcoming election year, though Republican leaders say Davis' rural 4th District seat is one they might be able to pick up.