With New Focus, Lott Moves On

Posted January 31, 2005 at 6:35pm

When Republicans streamed out of the Mansfield Room following last Tuesday’s policy lunch, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) remained behind to discuss President Bush’s Social Security proposal with a senior White House official.

Twenty-four hours later, Lott dashed past the same room, through to a seldom-used corridor and down a flight of stairs until he arrived at Room 104.

“OK, this is where it is,” Lott announced to no one in particular, having found the Senate hideaway he had been looking for, before turning on his heels and heading off to a meeting. As Republican leader, Lott was not responsible for such detailed administrative tasks. But as chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, the Mississippian oversees an array of minutiae including the allocation of office space in the Capitol. On this day Lott was making sure he had a firm grasp on the pluses and minuses of a coveted hideaway about to go on the open market.

It’s a different role for Lott, but one he takes just as seriously as when he served as Republican leader.

Praising Thurmond

The Majority Leader post began to slip away from Lott in December 2002 at retiring Sen. Storm Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday party. The remarks he made there cost Lott the chance to once again serve as the chamber’s most powerful Senator and required him to instead focus his attention at resurrecting a political career that was near ruin.

While speaking at Thurmond’s party, Lott allegedly praised the South Carolinian’s 1948 Dixiecrat presidential bid. Initially ignored, Lott’s remarks took on a new life when critics said he had in essence expressed support for racism. Public opinion quickly swelled to the point that he was forced to step down — paving the way for Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to slide into the Majority Leader’s office.

Despite pressure from some corners, Lott refused to resign and quietly fade away. In the past two years, Lott has carved out a new niche in the Senate: part Old Bull and part outspoken critic. And he is taking steps to run for a fourth term in 2006, although it is unclear if he will actually do so.

The Mississippi Senator had about $825,000 in his campaign war chest at the end of 2004, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is scheduled to attend a fundraiser for him in Jackson, Miss., next month.

“My intentions are to run for re-election,” said Lott, who declined a request for a formal interview, but agreed to talk during several encounters over the course of last week in the Senate hallways.

But in typical Lott style, he refused to be pinned down on what “intention” means and added that when it comes time to decide whether to formally declare his candidacy, “I will have to think about everything.”

Senate or K Street?

Following his very public fall from grace, many Capitol Hill insiders speculated Lott would retire to K Street and rake in the riches that have eluded him during his 30-plus years in Congress. Instead, Lott accepted the chance to become chairman of Rules, a committee with responsibilities so parochial that most outside of Capitol Hill probably have never heard of it. But the panel is charged with overseeing a major event: the president’s swearing-in ceremony every four years. Lott was the chairman for the 2005 Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

“I am very proud of Trent,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). “I think he handled his difficulty with great aplomb and he has shouldered a responsibility as chairman of the Rules committee.

“You might say it is a great step down from Majority Leader but instead of saying, ‘I am going to sit in the corner and sulk,’ Trent said, ‘This is where my seniority and my position puts me and I am going to take it and run with it,’” Bennett added.

As the Republican leader, Lott was responsible for devising floor strategy, negotiating votes with Democrats, and serving as the GOP Conference’s main spokesman. Now, shed of those responsibilities, he divides his time between crafting and expressing his own views on the major issues of the day and tending to the smallest administrative details of the chamber, such as doling out parking spaces.

“I like to be involved,” Lott said. “I try to find a niche where I can be helpful and make a difference or raise a little Cain if I think it is necessary.”

Raising Cain

So far, it appears Lott believes raising Cain is what the current times call for, at least when it comes to matters such as the fate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Mississippian’s belief that his own colleagues lack fiscal discipline.

Appearing before home-state business leaders in December, Lott expressed his dissatisfaction with Rumsfeld and suggested the Pentagon needed new leadership. Lott’s remarks echoed well beyond Mississippi’s borders and required the White House to publicly support the embattled Defense secretary.

Six weeks after he advocated a change in leadership at the Pentagon, Lott sought to temper his comments about Rumsfeld, saying last week “it is the president’s call” as to whether the Defense secretary stays or goes.

Still, it appears Lott has lost confidence in Rumsfeld, although the Mississippian said it has nothing to do with his overall handling of the war. Rather, he said, it is the Defense secretary’s stewardship of the Pentagon.

“He is not up for confirmation, but I have a number of concerns about things that are going on at the Pentagon or are not going on at the Pentagon,” Lott said.

The Mississippian later added, “I am concerned about the budget. I am concerned about how the military personnel are included in the process. I am very unhappy about the way [the base realignment and closure effort] is going forward. I don’t think [Rumsfeld] listens to us as much as he should.”

As for his colleagues, Lott held a solo news conference last month to chastise Republican and Democratic leaders for agreeing to expand the Senate committees’ operational budgets for the next two years.

“None of the leaders are going to be able to stand up on the floor of the Senate the rest of this year and talk about the deficit and how we got spending out of control,” Lott told reporters. “We are overdoing it in this area and that area.” While Lott might have been trying to rein in spending, he acknowledged being angry that a proposal he fashioned to keep committee budgets in check was scuttled at the 11th hour.

“You ask me why I am so mad about it? I am chairman of the Rules committee and I just got rolled by the leaders, and I don’t appreciate it,” Lott said.

Moving On

In the days following the Thurmond speech, Lott was looking for allies as he sought to beat back attempts to drive him out of office. But his comments praising Thurmond became chiseled in people’s minds.

“I want to say this about my state, when Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him,” Lott told attendees at the 2002 party, which was broadcast on C-SPAN. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

A handful of his colleagues spoke out on Lott’s behalf, but when he looked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for support, Bush shunned him.

Lott clearly hasn’t forgotten that the president failed to come to his aid at a time when he needed it most. But the Mississippi Senator said he has moved on from that incident and talks of the greater goal of advancing Bush’s agenda.

“Would have I liked, maybe more help, when I was going through my difficulties?” Lott asked rhetorically. “Sure. But he is our president and I want him to succeed.”

Lott also has his own legislative goals in mind. He has signed onto a bill with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to crack down on unregulated 527s’ fundraising committees, plans to fight for more funding for the unfinished highway bill and will continue to advocate for the GOP leadership to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” to make it easier for Bush’s judicial nominees to be approved.

And Lott predicted he will be deeply involved in many more issues, but not necessarily in a high-profile role.

“I am going to be able to be involved in helping a lot, but usually it will be because nobody knows I am doing it,” he said. “If I get too high profile, people get nervous.”

Lott said he “hopes” people have moved beyond that day in December 2002 but said it is not up to him to assess whether other people have.

“I try not to dwell on that and try to find a way to be happy with what I am doing and have a positive influence,” he said. “But I think others will be a better judge of that.”

Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) is one such person who said he thinks Lott has moved beyond the Thurmond speech, but added the Mississippi Senator will always be associated with those comments in one form or another.

“I think he probably recovered from it,” said Watts, the last black Republican to serve in Congress. “Every time Trent’s name is mentioned in some national way, in some feature story, there will always be that event.”