U.S. Sen. Bill Frist defended his decision to fight last year's judicial filibusters during a brief address at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on Monday.
The Tennessee Republican, who was joined on stage by former President Bush, was the featured speaker during the William Waldo Cameron Forum on Public Affairs - a twice-a-year event that brings public policy experts to lecture at the Texas A&M University campus.
Frist, a heart surgeon, was elected to the Senate in 1994 and is currently the Senate majority leader. He plans to retire at the end of the year, but he has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the White House in 2008. He did not address his political future at the forum Monday, other than to say he'll be returning to Nashville.
Hailed as "one of the nicest, most decent men to hold public office" by former President Bush, Frist used most of his half-hour speech to talk about the Democrat-initiated judicial filibusters that dominated headlines last year.
Democrats and Republicans ultimately reached a compromise on the issue, but only after Frist threatened to change the rules that govern selection of federal judges, he said. Democrats were using the procedure to block President Bush's appeals court selections.
"The Democrats blazed a trail that had never been blazed before," Frist said. "I had to use all the tools available to return precedent to 214 years of history."
Democrats agreed to compromise when Frist made demands for "up or down votes" on judicial nominees, rather than the usual practice of floor debate.
The agreement, brokered by seven Republicans and seven Democrats, involved a pledge from Democrats that the filibuster would only be used under "extraordinary circumstances." The Republicans agreed to avoid the "nuclear option," under which they could have used a procedural vote to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on judicial nominees.
The filibuster could "create a strong potential for tyranny among the minority," Frist said.
During a question-and-answer session, A&M graduate student Wendy Dye said she found the senator's point of view "interesting," but asked whether he used diplomacy before threatening to make changes.
Frist said he "fully exhausted the entire spectrum of diplomacy," and he compared his compromising efforts to a doctor healing someone who is ill.
"I'm trained to take a sick patient and heal him while minimizing the side effects," he said. "Sometimes it takes a pill, and sometimes it means taking out a heart and doing a transplant."
Also during the speech, the senator described himself as "100 percent pro-life" but said he supports embryonic stem cell research.
"Stem cells are uniquely powerful to save lives," he said. "They copy themselves forever, like an automatic Xerox machine."
He added that he believes the country has an opportunity to enter into an era of innovation and ingenuity by using stem cell research to cure disease.
"You can do embryonic stem cell research in an ethical way," he said.
When questioned about his views on term limits, Frist said he isn't sure if an across-the-board policy should be applied to all politicians.
"For me, 12 years is perfect," he said. "Should it be for everybody? I'm not sure because a lot of people we turn to because of their experience. I go to smart people and bring them in a room, and I learn from them, so I'm a little hesitant to say all politicians should term limit themselves."
The senator predicted that Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be the next majority leader.
"We will likely lose seats, but we will not lose majority control," Frist predicted.
• April Avison's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.