At the start of 2005, Bill Frist seemed to have the political Midas touch. A successful surgeon, the Tennessee Republican had blossomed in his second career, rising from his election to the U.S. Senate in 1994 to the post of majority leader in 2002. But last year, while Frist tried to both manage an unwieldy Senate and prepare for a 2008 presidential run, he often sounded off-balance--as when he inserted himself into the Terri Schiavo controversy, boldly but mistakenly arguing that her doctors misdiagnosed her vegetative state.
Frist will again find himself at the center of an emotional issue this week as the Senate debates illegal-immigration policy, and his performance could show whether he has regained his political footing. His party is divided: some G.O.P.ers simply want tougher border enforcement, while others, including President Bush, want temporary work permits for illegal immigrants. In December, the House sided with the hard-liners, passing a bill with no such guest-worker program and with provisions that would make it a federal crime to offer assistance to illegal immigrants. New York Senator Hillary Clinton, a possible 2008 contender on the other side of the aisle, slammed the bill, saying it "would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself." In rallies from Milwaukee, Wis., to Los Angeles, thousands of people marched last week to protest the proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants.
So with whom has Frist sided? None of the above. To the annoyance of some G.O.P. colleagues, who were crafting their own bill, Frist put out his plan, which would increase penalties for people in the U.S. illegally and add funding for guarding the border but not give work permits to illegal immigrants already here. While he has left open the possibility of backing a bill that includes a guest-worker provision, he's determined to get stronger border enforcement passed, which will please conservative voters who will pick the G.O.P. nominee in 2008. David Winston, a veteran G.O.P. pollster, says that Frist--who plans to retire from the Senate after this year--"is clearly laying out this marker." If he can succeed in passing an immigration bill--especially his own--he may regain some of the luster he lost last year. If he can't, he may return home to Tennessee as the ineffectual G.O.P. leader who lost his touch--and his presidential prospects.