Liberated Lott Emerges as Broker

Posted March 26, 2003 at 6:47pm

Far from turning into a recluse after his December downfall, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has instead delved into a new role as an elder statesman in the GOP Conference, taking on a full portfolio of committee work while also retaining his old position as one of the Senate’s key dealmakers.

He’s been dispatched to key meetings with moderates on the budget. He’s speaking out in weekly strategy luncheons. And he’s even worked the fundraising circuit, pulling in roughly $200,000 so far this year for his leadership PAC and dishing out checks to the same Senators who voted him out of leadership barely three months ago.

Not one to forget what happened to him, Lott has even grown comfortable enough with his new niche in the chamber that his fall from the leadership has become a regular punchline in his public speeches. Take Tuesday’s talk with airport and airline executives at the Capital Hilton.

Appearing as the new chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on aviation, Lott began by pulling out a binder which he indicated contained his prepared remarks, but then made the indirect-but-obvious reference to his fateful jokes about former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) Dixiecrat past.

“As you know, sometimes I’m inclined to use unprepared remarks … ” Lott said, pausing to let the audience laugh, “and just wing it.”

Friends and enemies alike say they are happy to see that Lott hasn’t turned into a bitter recalcitrant whose only purpose was avenging his downfall. “You would think he might be reticent, he might pull in his horns,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Instead, Specter said, “He’s digging in.”

“If anyone thought he was not going to be an active player, they’ve been proven wrong,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Somewhat bemused by the media’s continued interest in how he’s handling his transition, particularly efforts to portray him as a disengaged critic of the current leaders, Lott says he’s just doing the same sort of work that he’s always done, minus the fancy title and big responsibilities.

“I can’t help myself,” Lott said, reflecting on his 10-year run as a member of the leadership team. “I’ve been doing this for the past 10 years and I’m not about to stop. I’m here, I haven’t gone away.”

Across the board, Senators, Senate staffers and White House aides say Lott has been a consummate team player, grounding his rehabilitation efforts in hard work. And some Senators say Lott has taken on a far more important role, quickly emerging as a senior spokesman in the Conference and adviser to the new leadership on almost every issue.

Numerous sources said Lott’s effectiveness derives from his newfound freedom. His words have added meaning now when he’s supporting Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and President Bush because it’s clear he’s not doing so simply to boost the political fortunes of two politicians whose actions and words cemented Lott’s fate in December.

“When he speaks now, it’s like E.F. Hutton — people listen,” said one senior Senator, requesting anonymity. “He feels the independence of not being a part of the leadership.”

“He’s not carrying out the administration’s position. Sure, he’s more independent now,” said Specter, who noted that Lott was hardly a patsy for Bush when he was leader.

In a series of recent interviews, Lott said that he spent the holidays and early part of January trying to figure out how he would fit in after an ugly chain of events in December. “I had to decide what I was going to do to be constructive,” he said.

His committee assignments were an obvious starting point, gaining the gavel of the Rules and Administration Committee to oversee internal matters and getting a seat on the Intelligence Committee to have a hand in foreign policy. His seniority on Commerce opened the door to the helm of the aviation subcommittee, where he is now the biggest player in the Capitol in a proposed second bailout of the airline industry.

But Lott also decided to continue refining what has always been one of his greatest skills, deal-making. “I’m going to be here and I’m going to be a factor,” he said.

After a decade in Senate leadership preceded by eight years among the ranks of House leaders, Lott is widely acknowledged to have one of the best knacks for reading his colleagues and their motivations. Having served as Whip in both the House and Senate, he’s a skilled vote counter — a fact which helped him accept the all-too-painful facts when his friends told him he couldn’t beat Frist in a head-to-head leadership race.

Aides say throughout January, Lott went out of his way to approach colleagues and engage them in conversations, to get them talking and break the ice so there wouldn’t be too much awkwardness after so few of them came to Lott’s public defense during the Thurmond fiasco.

He also purposefully kept a low profile and didn’t speak out in public or in Republican conferences to avoid looking like he was second-guessing Frist’s decisions, observing what a pair of GOP Senators referred to as an “appropriate” period of silence.

But behind the scenes, and sometimes in full view on the Senate floor, Frist has been relying on Lott’s advice on all variety of matters, particularly with how to deal with different Senators and handling Lott’s former nemesis, Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.).

Two weeks ago, as the Senate was approaching big votes on a budget resolution that would attempt to lock in Bush’s proposed $726 billion tax cut, Frist dispatched Lott to help mediate a meeting with administration officials and at least two key wavering GOP Senators, Specter and George Voinovich (Ohio).

Lott declined to say who sent him to the meeting, but a Senate leader and a top aide confirmed Frist asked him to be there because the officials, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, had no real relationship with either of the Senators.

“It’s about relationships. Trent’s got relationships with everybody. It’s hard for Evans and Snow. They’re not from this culture,” said a senior GOP Senator requesting anonymity.

Lott said his appearance at that and other meetings, particularly with wavering moderates, was just part of his new role, trying to help Frist and another nemesis, Budget Chairman Don Nickles (Okla.), the first Republican to publicly call for a new election after Lott’s statements on Thurmond.

Lott admits that he hasn’t really forgiven Nickles for his actions, but that passing the budget is a critical Republican goal.

“I don’t owe Nickles any favors, obviously, but I support what he’s doing,” Lott said.

Lott hasn’t always agreed with Frist’s strategy on issues, something he has said publicly only once, during the unsuccessful fight to win the nomination of circuit court nominee Miguel Estrada.

While Lott now maintains a “substantially independent” presence from Frist and the White House, one Senator who was an ally of Lott’s in December said Lott knows that his rehabilitation process can’t be seen as vindictive.

“Don’t forget, rehabilitation lends itself to marketability,” the Senator said, suggesting that Lott’s post-Senate career would require an image overhaul if he’s to end up representing corporations or other interests.

It’s becoming commonly accepted in most quarters that Lott will serve out the remainder of his six-year term, ending in 2006, with the next four years the coda to a 30-plus-year run in Congress. Haley Barbour, Lott’s good friend and current gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi, said there is a “zero percent chance that he won’t serve out his term.”

“He plays them like they’re dealt to him. It’s clear he’s made the decision to go forward,” Barbour said.

Lott reaffirmed his intention to serve out his term, but declined to address his future after that. “That’s so far off I can’t see that far.”

But elections are never far from his mind, and his leadership political action committee, the New Republican Majority Fund, continues to hum along. Lott netted $75,000 at a fundraiser with maritime industry interests Monday evening, part of the continuing series of events he holds with different interest groups each Monday.

He began the month with $370,000 in the bank and, with the March 31 deadline approaching, he cut campaign checks this month to incumbents up in 2004, including Specter and Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), and Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

His largest fundraising gala of the year, a weekend with lobbyists, industry representatives and their families in Hilton Head, S.C., is once again sold out. With two dozen or so children expected on hand, the former Majority Leader’s planning on overseeing “Camp Lotta Fun” so the kids enjoy themselves while the adults do their thing.

Friends say privately that the sting of being accused of racism still lingers, that it won’t just go away. But Lott contends he’s putting it behind him and focusing on new opportunities. As he told his maritime industry donors Monday, he recently had a meeting with the mayor of a small Mississippi town which was having trouble getting money for a housing project from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Within minutes Lott was on the phone with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, and that afternoon Lott, Martinez and the mayor sat down in the secretary’s office to discuss the matter.

“I’m free to be a legislator again,” Lott told Roll Call. “And it’s kind of fun.”