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After the ‘Wilderness,’ Lott Settling Into Role

It’s been six months since Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) orchestrated a come-from-behind, one-vote victory to return to the leadership lineup as Minority Whip. And it seems — as has often been the case over his varied career — Lott is continuing to defy expectations.

Many of his colleagues, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), had early fears that Lott would struggle in his second tour as the No. 2 Senate Republican after six years in the top GOP job and another four as a rank-and-file Member. Some Senate Republicans privately wondered whether the spotlight-commanding Lott could successfully take a back seat to the quieter and more reserved McConnell — who had not supported Lott’s return to leadership in the first place.

“It was a natural concern, I think,” Lott acknowledged in an interview last week. “But Mitch and I have done a lot of things together. We’ve been friends. … I think that maybe he had some apprehensions at first, but I think he now realizes that I want to be helpful and that I work at the job I have — I don’t try to do his.”

“Trent was someone who was the No. 1 and now is the No. 2,” noted Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think it’s pretty hard putting your ego aside. But he seems to have had no problem with that. He has actually done it perfectly — he’s stepped back to be more supportive of McConnell.”

Narrow Victory

Lott assumed the Minority Whip job in January after securing the position in a December secret-ballot election against first-term Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Lott bested Alexander by just one vote — an outcome that was unexpected yet also a repeat of history, given that Lott won his first stint as Whip a dozen years ago beating out the incumbent in the post, then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), by a single ballot.

Reflecting on last year’s pre-vote maneuvering, Lott said he still isn’t certain whether he would have won the job had Republicans not just suffered a grueling loss of their majority in the November elections. Unlike Alexander, Lott had served as Whip before — in both the Senate and House — and held leadership positions in both the majority and minority.

“I think it probably made a difference,” Lott said. “I think I felt that my colleagues were in total shock there for a while, and then a little bit of denial, and only by the time when we came around to the [leadership] elections did they feel like maybe they were coming to terms with where we are. So, I won at the finish line.”

Finish line might be an understatement. Lott, who had teased at a run for a year but only officially entered the Whip hunt two weeks before the balloting, said he walked into the Old Senate Chamber confident he could win by two or three votes. Similarly, Alexander — in the race for more than a year — counted on a victory margin of about the same number of Senators.

Asked when he felt confident he had the race won, Lott quipped: “At about 10 o’clock that morning.”

The result reverberated across the Capitol within seconds and was especially noteworthy since several influential Senators, including McConnell and his chief lieutenant, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), were behind Alexander. At the time, Alexander worked to paint a contrast with Lott by trumpeting himself as a Republican Conference unifier who had no interest in big-footing, or ever challenging, McConnell as the leader.

Now, Alexander willingly gives solid marks to his one-time rival for his approach to the No. 2 post these days, saying that Lott’s “been very careful to recognize there is one leader at a time.”

“Mitch doesn’t say much,” Alexander said. “And Trent says less. Trent is bending over backward to show that Mitch is the leader and he is not.”

“We share a challenging role,” offered Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Majority Whip. “We both work for our leaders. We each express and have our own ideas, but we understand [our] first obligation is to help our leaders meet their goals.”

The ‘Wilderness Years’

Undoubtedly, it’s been a difficult few years for Lott. In 2002, he unexpectedly lost his slot as the Senate’s top Republican after delivering remarks at the 100th birthday of the late-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that were perceived as racially insensitive. In 2005, Lott’s mother died at the age of 91. Just a few months later that same year, Lott’s Mississippi home was destroyed in the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.

“I have learned a lot of good lessons in the last five years,” said Lott, who was first elected to the House in 1972. “And one of them is you never know what events will bring. You’ve got to be prepared.”

Lott calls those four-plus years as a rank-and-file Republican as his “wilderness years,” a period that brought him back to his roots as a legislator and allowed him to showcase his independence. Lott often was an open critic of the Bush administration — as an early detractor of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance — and on occasion took to the floor to question the Senate’s inability to work through legislative gridlock.

It also was during that time that he forged new friendships with more junior Senators, many of whom ultimately supported his bid for Whip and some of whom now serve on his eight-member leadership team. Also in those years, Lott was able to use his non-leadership status to help the Senate work through some thorny procedural roadblocks — he was an early leader in helping form the “Gang of 14,” which assembled in 2005 to avert a Senate shutdown over stalled judicial nominations.

It certainly was a reflective time for Lott.

“You change with life and I think probably you mature as you get older because some of the hot passions cool a little bit and you learn from your mistakes,” Lott said. “And as you go through life you are going to make mistakes, and if you are smart, you won’t make ’em twice.”

Admittedly, Lott, 65, is more cautious with his tongue these days, but he insists he has as much liberty as he’s ever had to “do what I believe in.”

“That’s one thing I’ve learned — you do need to be careful with how you speak,” Lott said. “But I am free to take positions that sometimes don’t necessarily conform to conventional wisdom. Even though I am the Whip, I will always try to do my work objectively. I march to my own conscience.”

His Senate colleagues argue it was during his four years as a backbencher that Lott was able to refocus and that many of those same Republicans who called for his ouster during the Thurmond episode began re-evaluating his value to the Conference.

After all, few Senators have served more than 30 years in both the House and Senate and held so many combined leadership posts in the two chambers.

The Dealmaker

Ironically, Lott’s reputation for working with Democrats — which got him into hot water with his party time and again as Majority and Minority Leader — has since proved to be among his biggest selling points with his Republican colleagues. In a 51-49 split, Lott’s personal relationships with Democrats and his ability to work out a deal are at a new premium, many Senate Republicans say.

“That was all really important in this difficult time,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a conservative who is Lott’s Chief Deputy Minority Whip. “It required someone with this sort of experience and skill set. He knows in order to get things done, you’ve got to find consensus and work with the other side.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), one of Lott’s closest confidantes, harkened back to 1996 when Lott first took over as Majority Leader from Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.) after Dole resigned. Lott quickly set out to strike deals with Congressional Democrats and then-President Bill Clinton to pass a minimum-wage increase and craft a welfare reform deal and a health insurance portability plan, Snowe recalled.

“He took a lot of heat for that,” Snowe said. “That shows the dimensions of Trent and his understanding of what’s important.”

As Lott sees it, brokering compromise is just part of the legislative process — what he calls “the art of governance.”

“You don’t get things just the way you want it,” he said. “I don’t think you have to sacrifice basic principles and philosophy to try to find a way to move the legislative process. … We should be here to try to do some things, not find ways to always fight a partisan battle.”

Not surprisingly, within his own Whip team, Lott has assigned himself the job of working with the Democrats, reaching out to those few moderates and independents who sometimes side with Republicans on key votes. Lott considers the Whip job to be part vote-counter and part vote-getter, keeping 49 Republicans and at least two or three Democrats — including Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — on his radar at any given time.

Lott remains coy about the prospect of another party switch under his watch, which could shift the balance of the Senate to an even 50-50 mark, with Vice President Cheney giving the tie-breaking vote to the GOP. Such a move would not be new territory for Lott, who counts having a hand in at least nine switches over the course of his career in both the House and Senate. (And Lott himself worked for four years as an aide to a Democrat — then-Rep. William Colmer [Miss.] — before being elected to the House as a Republican in 1972.)

“Let’s just say there could be one [party-switcher] that does not sit on our side,” Lott said.

Lott admits he doesn’t want to relive being on the losing end of a party change following the infamous 2001 switch of then-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) to the Independent banner, a move that gave the Democrats control of the chamber in a familiar 51-49 tilt.

Still, Lott can look back at the Jeffords betrayal now with some levity: “But I’ve done more poaching than I’ve had poaching done against me.”

For now, Lott said he’s looking ahead under a narrow minority in a chamber that affords his party enough influence to prevent Democratic dominance. And with more than three decades of Congressional experience, Lott says of the Whip position: “I am perfectly content with what I’m doing at this point of my life.”

Still, as is always the case with Lott, he refuses to close any doors on his future. Lott won’t altogether rule out the chance of running for re-election in 2012 (even though he says he doubts he will), nor will he say with certainty that the Republican Whip position — minority or majority — will be his final stop back up the leadership ladder.

“That’s not something I aspire to at this point,” Lott says of being Republican leader again. “I want to do the best I can wherever I am. I’ve done that. It’s a really tough job. I don’t foresee that opportunity to come around again and I won’t have regrets if it doesn’t.”

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