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Former Republican leader Trent Lott no longer has an office in the Capitol, but the veteran deal-maker continues to have influence in the Senate.
The Mississippi Republican, who spent 35 years in public office, has evolved from a master vote-counter into a power broker on K Street who still acts as an adviser to his former colleagues.
Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, a veteran lawmaker in his own right, said he would probably would reach out to Lott about his plan to seek the No. 2 GOP leadership position next Congress.
“I haven’t,” the Tennessee Republican said, “but I probably will.”
Before Lott departed the Senate in late 2007, the one-time Majority Leader was well-known for the easy way that he made personal connections with his colleagues. But his ability to maintain those connections after he left Congress has set him apart in a business where individual contacts are the keys to power.
While Lott said he likes his new role as a senior adviser at Patton Boggs, which merged with his firm last year, he maintains a distinctly Senatorial schedule of toggling between Washington, D.C., and Mississippi.
“I’m not here that much because I’m still on the speaker circuit, corporate boards, and you know, we have our place back in Mississippi,” he said. “I’m here less than half of the time.”
Still, Lott is cashing in on his connections, representing high-profile clients, including General Electric Co. in its recent and unsuccessful battle to retain funding for an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, and FedEx in its nasty dispute with UPS. FedEx opposes legislation that would make it easier for truck drivers to organize and strike.
But it’s Lott’s reputation, especially in the current political environment where partisanship has replaced compromise, that has made him popular among his former colleagues.
“I think Trent was one that was well-respected on both sides of the aisle for getting things done,” said former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), with whom Lott founded the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group. “He has an expertise in the process that Members who are new Members would like to know more about.”
Lott downplays his behind-the-scenes involvement.
“A lot of what we do is a lot more consulting and giving advice than it is talking directly to Senators or Congressmen,” Lott said. “Sometimes you do have direct contact with them and not always with the ones that were close friends.”
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said he speaks to Lott, too.
“He has clients with his firm that he represents, and occasionally he will call somebody and ask that we meet with one of his clients,” the Arizona Republican told Roll Call. “No more than other ... well, less than, a lot of lobbyists.”
But Lott can often be spotted in and around the Capitol complex, riding the trains to the office buildings or eating lunch in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a favorite haunt when he was a Senator. In fact, on a recent afternoon Lott was seen waiting by the elevators on the Senate side.
The Mississippi Republican continues to build relationships with new Members, a skill he honed during his legislative career that began in 1973. In particular, Lott has provided counsel to several Republican candidates, as well as to those who aspire to his path of moving from to the House to the Senate, including now-Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Rob Portman (Ohio).
Lott said the time that he spends on Capitol Hill is more about the long-term relationships that he built over 35 years in public office, and less about business.
In an era where partisan sniping is the norm, Lott is an outlier for the numerous close friendships that he maintains with those across the political aisle. In addition to keeping in contact with former Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), his counterpart for several years, Lott listed more than a half-dozen Democrats, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.), whom he considers friends.
Lott conceded that the current political environment isn’t ripe for building close personal friendships, even with lawmakers of same political party.
“I do think they’ve kind of lost that,” Lott said, noting the stresses of the job have increased, with pressure to return home and fundraise around the clock. “It’s awfully hard for them to have personal or social relationships like we used to do in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Alexander said his friendship with Lott goes beyond the time they spent in the Senate together.
“He’s a very dear friend. We were roommates when we were in our 20s in Washington,” Alexander said, adding that he probably sees more of Lott than most Senators since their families have vacationed together for a few days the past two years, “I see him, I talk to him, but I do it because we are friends.”