Lott Leaving With Few Regrets

Posted December 12, 2007 at 6:41pm

As Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) prepares to exit the institution he’s called home for nearly four decades, the veteran deal-maker says he has a clear conscience about the timing of his departure and no worries about the future of his deeply fractured Republican Party.

True to form, Lott is both relaxed and optimistic as he watches the final days of his Congressional tenure come to a close. He says he has no regrets that within days he will resign just a year into his fourth Senate term and his return to the GOP leadership.

“There’s never a good time to leave, in a way,” Lott said in an interview Wednesday. “Who knows? Two years from now, six years from now, I could die here or grow into a stumbling old man.

“Thirty-five years is a pretty good commitment.”

First elected to the House in 1972, Lott has spent nearly all of his professional life in Congress. He said he decided to leave now — back at the top table as the Republican Whip — because “I wanted to keep my promise” to his wife, Tricia, and his family to make time for a life outside of the House and Senate.

“I’m not leaving thinking, ‘Oh me, the Whip work won’t get done,’” Lott said. “We’ll be fine. … I don’t begin to think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m irreplaceable.’ That’s just not the case.”

Stepping Aside

Within a matter of weeks, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) will name Lott’s interim replacement in the Senate. And Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the GOP Conference chairman, has already been tapped by his fellow Senators to move into Lott’s job as Whip once he’s gone.

Lott said it won’t be long before his Mississippi successor builds up some seniority, and that it’s time for younger Senators to make their mark on the chamber. Asked whether he believes he’s leaving his party in a pinch at a time when they arguably need him most, Lott said: “I’ve given a lot of thought to all of this.

“I don’t want to cause problems for anybody, but I believe there is a season for everybody.”

Lott shocked the political world when he announced late last month that he was leaving the Senate by year’s end. Rumors quickly abounded that the 66-year-old former attorney had a method to the madness: to get out before Jan. 1 and escape new, stiffer restrictions on lobbying by ex-Senators.

For his part, Lott continues to deny speculation that he’s long had a plan in place to abandon the Senate now so he can set up a lucrative firm, most likely with his longtime friend ex-Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). While Lott won’t deny the possibility of such a partnership, he adamantly denies the two have been in cahoots on a deal.

“There’s nothing behind what you hear,” he said. “I don’t know what I can or want to do. I’ve been seeking a lot of advice.”

Lott also poked fun at a recent report in The Hill that his son, Chet, who is a registered lobbyist in Washington, laid claim to the www.breauxlott.com domain just a few weeks before Lott announced his resignation. Had Lott had knowledge of the move, he quipped, “obviously I didn’t have anything to do with it, because it certainly would have been lottbreaux.”

A New Book

Lobbyist or not, Lott does have some ideas about his future. The Mississippi Republican said he’s interested in authoring another book; he’s already got a title in mind, chapters mentally outlined and the subject matter vetted.

Lott said the book would be titled “It’s Called Leadership” and would consist of 20 chapters on 20 “courageous” Senators and House Members he’s encountered over his tenure. It would be “about men and women who through courage and tenacity have made a difference in history,” he said.

“I know a lot of stories about House Members and Senators — and their story hasn’t been told,” Lott said. “And it does disturb me that people hold us in such low regard.”

Lott attempted to downplay what many say has been growing frustration with the Senate’s failure to get much done in recent years, especially since Democrats captured the majority in the House and Senate last November.

But the inference was hard to ignore when Lott spoke about his proudest moments in the Senate, pointing to his time as Majority Leader working with Democratic President Bill Clinton to balance the budget and even find surpluses. Such deal-making seems elusive these days, especially as Democrats clash mightily with President Bush over an outstanding omnibus spending package.

“It was an important thing to do — it showed it could be done when we have a Congress of one party and a president of another, ” Lott said of his budget deals with Clinton. “It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.”

His Legacy

Lott’s certainly had his highs and his share of lows, including his infamous remarks at the 100th birthday of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that many perceived as racially insensitive. The comments forced Lott out of his Majority Leader position and into rank-and-file status until his return to leadership last year.

Lott said on Wednesday that he doesn’t “worry a whole lot about how history will describe” his fall from grace. Nor, Lott argued, did he try to erase his past foibles by mounting a successful political resurgence as Minority Whip.

“It’s not that complicated,” Lott said. “It wasn’t intended to be a vindication. I thought that I could be useful.”

And many would say Lott has been just that as one of the institution’s savviest politicians and most successful deal-makers. His relationships with Democrats and House Members are unequaled among the Senate GOP, leaving many Senators to wonder whether any Republican can step into that role once he’s gone.

“I’m sure there are people who will step up and carry on and others will come along,” Lott said. “I think you have to have that” in order to get legislation passed in a highly charged political environment.

And while Lott acknowledged that Congress has become increasingly gridlocked, he believes it is ever-evolving and attitudes will once again soften. But it won’t happen in a vacuum, Lott said, adding that it will take a concerted effort by compromise-minded Members to bring an end to the acrimony.

“I think for it to really change it will take leadership — men and women of good will — who decide, ‘No wait a minute, this has gone too far. We’re going to stop this,’” Lott said. “And that won’t be easy, and I’m not talking about ‘the leaders,’ I’m talking about leaders. It may be the Majority and Minority leaders, it may just be somebody else, a rank-and-file Senator.”

A Former Rabble-Rouser

The Senate is now home to a healthy share of former House Members who reveled in the partisan energy of the so-called lower chamber. Junior Senators such as Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have made sport of the Senate rules, a practice that has infuriated many of the Senate’s old bulls.

While the likes of those Senators rattled Lott on more than one occasion this year, Lott said he is sympathetic to the new generation of rabble-rousers, noting that he had the same sorts of frustrations when he came over from the House nearly two decades ago.

“I was an agitated back-bencher in 1989, and I kept looking at the Senate saying, ‘This place is outrageous. How does it work?’” Lott recalled. “Finally I went to the Parliamentarian after a few months saying, ‘I don’t get it. These rules over here don’t make any sense.’”

The Parliamentarian advised Lott that there are only two rules of the Senate to remember: unanimous consent and exhaustion — meaning that you can probably get an exhausted Senator to consent to almost anything you want. Lott said he “thought about that for a long time and there’s a lot of truth to that.”

Lott clearly heeded that lesson as he repeatedly remarked in recent years that the Senate must master the art of compromise. While he didn’t always find room to negotiate, he seemed to do so when the chamber needed it most, like during its near-meltdown in 2005 over stalled judicial nominations.

Lott quietly helped assemble a bipartisan group of Senators to strike a deal to move through a series of Bush’s court picks so long as the then-GOP majority kept the Democrats’ right to filibuster intact. The deal no longer applies, yet the precedent has its mark and the relationships forged still linger.

Lott’s advice is simple and even elementary. He counsels his Senate colleagues to focus on the relationships and the friendships that have marked the Congress for decades — both within the chamber and across the Dome to the House.

“It’s not all politics, it’s not all partisanship,” Lott said. “Friendships go a long way.”