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Republicans Seek to Quiet Race Controversy With Selection of New US Senate Leader - 2002-12-23

Republicans in the U.S. Senate have chosen Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee to be their new leader. They now hope to move past the racial controversy that forced Senator Trent Lott to resign from the leadership post last week.

Senator Frist was unanimously elected Republican leader in an unusual telephone conference call involving most of the 51 Senate Republicans.

Mr. Frist is the only physician in the Senate and will assume the post of Senate Majority Leader when the new Congress convenes on January 7. Republicans retook control of the Senate in the November congressional elections.

Senator Frist takes over from Senator Trent Lott who resigned his leadership post last week after a firestorm of criticism for remarks he made at a birthday party in early December for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond. Senator Lott said the country would have been better off had Senator Thurmond, who ran on a platform of racial segregation, been elected president in 1948. Senator Lott repeatedly apologized for the remarks but was unable to survive the criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Following his election Monday, Senator Frist told reporters in his home state of Tennessee that he intends to heal the racial divisions brought about by the Lott comments.

"Our purpose, very simply put, in politics, we say, is to improve the lives of others," he said. "As a physician, I think, as I look at every patient, it is to make each American's life more fulfilling, and that means many things to many people. And my job is to help assimilate, to listen very carefully, just like the doctor, to assimilate or pull together those ideas and to make decisions and indeed, to lead."

Bill Frist is a relative newcomer to national politics. The 50-year old wealthy heart surgeon was first elected to the Senate in 1994 and re-elected two years ago.

Political analysts say Senator Frist benefits from a close relationship with President Bush.

Allan Lichtman is a presidential historian at the American University here in Washington. "He is very closely aligned with George Bush. He was one of the leaders of the Republican take-over of the Senate in this last election. He is very conservative but outwardly he is very moderate in his demeanor.

Senator Frist has a conservative voting record but has worked with Democrats on some issues, particularly health care. He is expected to spearhead Republican proposals on health care reform in the new Congress.

Senator Frist is also a frequent visitor to Africa, especially southern Sudan, where he volunteers his medical expertise at local clinics and hospitals.