Lott Eyes Return As Whip

Posted September 30, 2005 at 6:47pm

If he decides to run for re-election, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said last week it’s very likely he will seek to re-enter the ranks of GOP leadership posts opening up after the 2006 elections.

Lott, who has said he expects to make a decision to run for re-election by the end of the year, said he will decide about making a leadership bid at roughly the same time.

“If I do come back, I probably would try to get back into a leadership position of some kind,” the former Majority Leader said late last week.

For now, however, Lott is holding back on revealing what post he might shoot for, and five of the six leadership spots are still up in the air after Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retires at the end of 2006. Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already secured more than 40 pledges of commitment for that job, well more than necessary to take over for Frist.

“You have to review your cards,” Lott said of his options.

Lott’s open musings about entering a leadership race comes as another race — one the Mississippian may enter himself — has begun to take shape. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is running for Whip, in a race that could pit him against Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is up against his six-year term limit as Conference chairman and is looking to jump from the No. 3 to No. 2 spot.

There also is a public battle being waged for the No. 5 spot, vice chairman of the Conference, between two up-and-comers, Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) are currently unopposed in their bids for Conference chairman and Policy Committee chairman, respectively, the No. 3 and 4 posts.

Lott’s angling to get back in leadership has been a near-constant topic in the halls of the Senate for at least a year, with many observers convinced he has grown tired of his role as elder statesman for the party sometimes sought out to help broker deals.

Lott has not begun reaching out to other Senators to ask for their support, not even in terms of letting them know which position he’d go for, according to several Senators who spoke privately about their former leader.

One veteran GOP Senator said he had detected “a heightened sense of activity” from Lott in the past six months, particularly in terms of his willingness to speak out during Conference meetings.

But Lott must first decide to run for re-election before he seeks a return to leadership, and, to some extent, those two decisions appear to be intertwined.

Lott said in mid-September that he was torn about the decision to run for re-election, in part because of the financial ruin his family suffered when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in the Gulf Coast town of Pascagoula, Miss.

“On a personal basis, it is probably time for me to go,” Lott said. “On a constituent and professional basis, maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know.”

Lott, who turns 64 on Saturday, is at an age when many Senators face the toughest political decision of their lives, with enough energy and health to go into the private sector for another decade or so to make a significant amount of money. If he opted for another term, he would be 71 in 2012, when the seat comes up again.

Lott currently is chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, a post he was given after being deposed in December 2002 for his supportive remarks of the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). That job gives him some level of influence and contact with all Senators, but the chairmanship can oftentimes involve more mundane tasks such as determining who gets what office space and which rooms are available for meetings.

He’s more than eight years away from being in line to chair the influential Finance Committee, assuming a steady GOP majority, and possibly 11 years away from chairing Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Without an appealing chairmanship coming his way any time soon, his most direct route to getting an important seat at the table for another term would be running for leadership.

Lott said last week that the timing for his decisions on running for re-election and going for a leadership race would be almost simultaneous. “Oh, I guess about the same time,” he said.

One of the most natural slots for Lott to gun for would be Whip, a position he held in both the House and in the Senate and one he frequently speaks of with the most fondness. But he has seemed to indicate in previous interviews that he’d be reluctant to any challenge of Santorum while the Pennsylvanian is locked in his own battle for re-election — and Santorum has taken that message to heart.

“I think Sen. Lott’s made pretty clear he’s not going to run against me,” said Santorum, who was one of Lott’s most ardent supporters during the Thurmond ordeal.

The posts of Policy and vice-chairman of the Conference would appear to be fairly low on the leadership ladder for someone with his resume: he served as Whip for eight years in the House, and was either Whip or Leader for eight years in the Senate.

If he decides to run for re-election, Lott could mount a campaign for one of the other slots and leave open the possibility of jumping into the Whip’s race if Santorum loses his own re-election bid, giving him the appearance of remaining loyal to Santorum.

Alexander told The Hill last week that he is in the Whip’s race regardless of how Santorum’s race turns out against state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).

A contest pitting Lott against Alexander for Whip would be a fascinating personal battle: for a brief few months the two lived together in a group house when they were both staffers on Capitol Hill. Lott eventually moved out because he was married and Alexander and the other roommates were still single, and apparently having too much fun for the straight-laced Lott.

Santorum said that the race against Casey won’t be a distraction to his Whip race, noting that his colleagues have seen him in leadership for four-and-a-half years.

“I think people know how I do my job,” he said. “I think people have made their judgments.”

Despite being out of leadership, Lott has continued to be one of the Senate GOP’s top fundraisers in terms political action committee cash. Through the end of August, his New Republican Majority Fund had taken in $915,000, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Alexander’s committee, TennPAC, has been far less active, raising almost $58,000 through the end of June. But Alexander has been a big force at raising money for star-studded events such as the annual Presidents’ Dinner on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.