Devisive Frist now preaches cooperation

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who fanned partisanship during much of his reign, preached the need for the two parties to work together as he bid farewell to the U.S. Congress on Thursday.

"Beyond Democrat or Republican, we are Americans," the retiring Tennessee Republican told colleagues. "It’s our responsibility to uphold the dream."

Bill FristAs majority leader the past four years, Frist, 54, stirred some big partisan battles, particularly when he broke tradition in 2004 and campaigned against Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in his home state of South Dakota. Daschle lost a re-election bid.

In sharp contrast to the way Republicans treated Daschle afterward, Frist’s delivered his farewell address in a packed Senate chamber.

Only a few Republicans bothered to show up for Daschle’s good-bye to the Senate two years ago. Frist walked in near the end.

As Democrats victorious in last month’s elections prepared to take control when the new Congress convenes next month, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid urged members of his party to attend Frist’s farewell.

"We don’t want to be seen as petty," a Democratic aide said. "We don’t want to be seen as trying to get even. We want to show some respect."

Frist, a heart-transplant surgeon, was first elected to the Senate in 1994 with a promise not to stay more than two six-year terms. In keeping that vow, he said: "It’s time for fresh faces and fresh resolve."

Frist became Senate Republican leader in January 2003, after he helped his party win control of the legislative body as head of the Senate Republican campaign committee.

In last month’s elections, Republicans lost the Senate and House to Democrats, largely because of the Iraq war and discontent with what was denounced as a "do-nothing Congress."

Frist had been criticized for his work as majority leader, some saying he seemed more concerned about advancing Bush’s interests than those of the Senate.

Yet Frist had some major accomplishments, such as cranking up the global war against AIDS and helping increase security of the United States after the September 11 attacks.

Frist had been considered a potential 2008 White House contender. But last month he announced he had decided instead to resume his career in medicine.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan)

© Reuters 2006