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Lott Announces Resignation; Leadership Races Already Under Way

With the news barely official that Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will resign his seat by the end of the year, a flurry of activity already has begun to replace him in the Senate, hire him on K Street and succeed him as the chamber’s No. 2 GOP leader.

Lott, 66, shocked Mississippi and the national political world when he announced Monday that he would vacate his Senate post by Dec. 31, five years before his six-year term expires. Lott cited his family and a desire to do something new as his primary reasons for leaving now, although sources close to him said he also had grown wary of the chamber, is financially strapped and wanted to exit before new ethics restrictions barring him from lobbying the Senate for two years took effect.

Lott dismissed the lobbying prohibitions as one of the reasons for his hasty departure, saying there were limits on what he could do before the new law and that most of outside work by Senators is “consulting and not lobbying.”

“We had planned on retiring in 2006 and we struggled with that decision. … We decided I had to run again and we had work to do and couldn’t get it all done by the end of 2005,” Lott said.

“We feel like it is time now.”

Lott, who stressed that he is in good health, said “we don’t have anything lined up at this time” but believes it is appropriate to make the move before the end of the year. He mentioned teaching and affiliating with a law firm as possible options.

“I don’t have any problem, this is not a negative thing,” Lott said. “There’s no malice, no anger. There’s nothing but happiness and pride.”

Lott’s exit will have a notable effect on the Senate given his reputation as one of the chamber’s most influential and effective deal-makers. But even more intriguing than Lott’s shocking announcement may be the ripple effect it already is having, both on Mississippi politics and in Washington.

As early as Sunday night, Republican Senators were burning up phone lines to campaign for Lott’s Whip position and the slots directly below it that will open up because of his departure.

The most hotly contested post is shaping up to be the Republican Conference chairmanship, the No. 3 slot now held by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is running — with Lott’s backing — to succeed the Mississippian as Whip.

With Kyl making calls for Lott’s job, no fewer than five GOP Senators are at least considering running for the Conference chair post. Sources confirmed Monday that Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) are definitely running, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sen. John Thune (S.D.) also are eyeing the spot.

DeMint has a close relationship with Burr, who entered the Senate with DeMint in 2004 and has strong credentials with like-minded conservatives. DeMint, who has emerged as one of the party’s most vocal leaders of the fiscal conservative movement, has enjoyed a fair amount of success in his position as Steering Committee chairman. If he were to choose to remain in that position, he could find a powerful new leadership ally in Burr.

Alexander, who lost to Lott by just one vote for the Whip job a year ago, also is weighing a second run for that post — a move that would set up a challenge against Kyl.

“We are looking at all possibilities throughout the day,” said Tom Ingram, Alexander’s chief of staff. “We’re not ruling anything in or anything out yet.”

Similarly, Thune, now Chief Deputy Whip under Lott, is looking at running for Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 post now held by Hutchison. Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) also plans to vie for that job, assuming Hutchison runs for Conference chair.

One source close to Thune said the South Dakota Senator is “talking to other Senators and gauging interest” as he decides whether to run for GOP Conference chairman or Policy Committee chairman.

Still unclear is who would seek out the No. 5 leadership post now held by Cornyn if he does pursue the Policy Committee position. Thune also has been mentioned for that slot.

While he brushed aside the idea that the “revolving door” rules affected his decision, Lott has good reason to make his exit quickly if he wants to take a lobbying job. Leaving after Dec. 21, the expected date of adjournment, would mean an extra year on the sidelines, per the new ethics reform law. That measure doubled to two years the cooling-off period for Senators-turned-lobbyists, but it is not yet in effect.

And if Lott does opt for a new career on K Street, he will have plenty of attractive options, several GOP lobbyists said.

“He can write his own ticket,” one senior Republican lobbyist said. “He can sit and wait for the offers to come to him, rather than look in the back section of the newspaper for employment.”

One possibility: teaming up with former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who has served as a senior counsel at Patton Boggs since 2005. The two were famously close when they served together, and several sources said Breaux’s contract with the firm is up at the end of the year. Neither Breaux nor a senior firm official were available for comment at press time.

K Street watchers also pointed to several top lobbying jobs open in the financial services sector, including leadership posts at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Financial Services Forum and the Managed Funds Association.

As a top trade association or corporate office figure, Lott could count on commanding at least $1 million a year, several lobbyists said. He would likely earn more at his own shop or as a rainmaker at an established firm.

Lott remained vague Monday afternoon while discussing his resignation plans, saying only that he planned to exit the Senate at the end of the year.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said in a statement Monday that once Lott’s resignation takes effect, he will schedule a special election to be held on Nov. 4, 2008, the same day as the already planned state and national balloting. Barbour also said he would appoint “the best qualified person who can do the most for our state and country” to the position in the interim, and that he would not appoint himself or stand as a candidate in November.

The special election to replace Lott will not be conducted like a typical contest. Rather than holding traditional party primaries followed by a general election contest between the Democratic and Republican nominees, all candidates who run will compete in a special open primary election.

The two top vote-getters from that contest will proceed to a runoff, regardless of their party affiliation, unless the winner of the special garners 50 percent, plus one, of the total vote.

With Mississippi’s solid GOP bent, several Republicans could end up jockeying to replace Lott. But according to one Republican source with knowledge of Mississippi politics, Barbour could end up turning to two Republicans as potential appointees.

“I think [Rep.] Chip Pickering is the obvious choice, with [Rep.] Roger Wicker being the next option,” this Republican source said Monday morning.

When Cochran was considering retiring there had been some concern among Republicans that former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D) would enter an open-seat race. Moore’s name is now being mentioned again for Lott’s seat by Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Moore is well-known in the state for leading the legal fight waged by several states against the tobacco industry and helping to negotiate a payout worth millions of dollars to states across the country. Moore, now in private practice, is one Democrat who could raise a lot of money quickly.

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), who was defeated by Barbour in 2003, told The Rothenberg Political Report on Monday that he “is seriously considering running” for the seat. Rep. Gene Taylor (D) also is viewed as a potential candidate, though he is considered to be a less likely possibility.

Long the maverick GOP lawmaker, Lott has never been one to follow protocols. Lott made a surprise return to leadership just a year ago when he ran for Minority Whip, besting Alexander by just one vote.

Lott said then that he was unlikely to run for a fifth term in 2012, but most assumed he would remain in the chamber until then. Lott almost retired in 2006 but decided he would seek the seat to help his home state recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Lott previously had served as Majority Leader, a position he was forced to forgo after delivering what were then perceived as racially insensitive comments at the 100th birthday of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

David M. Drucker, John McArdle, Tory Newmyer and John Stanton contributed to this report.