IF SEN. TRENT LOTT of Mississippi, the early-line favorite, succeeds Sen. Bob Dole as majority leader of the Republican-controlled Senate, "confrontational conservatism" will reign supreme on Capitol Hill. Mr. Lott is an old buddy and soul mate of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and, even more, of House majority leader Dick Armey. He is neither in his relationship with his party's presidential nominee, long an advocate of "commonsense conservatism." There's a big difference.
Mr. Dole opposed his likely successor when Mr. Lott won the party whip's job two years ago. And the Mississippian returned the favor by backing Sen. Phil Gramm in his losing primary battles with Mr. Dole earlier this year. Though a surface cordiality has been maintained, Mr. Dole will be supporting another Mississippian, Thad Cochran, if a contest actually emerges in the party caucus.
Mr. Lott's prospects brightened considerably yesterday when Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma let it be known he would not seek the majority leader's job but would settle for the No. 2 whip's post. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, one of those more moderate Republicans who is more interested in cutting the deficit than in cutting taxes, may also make a run for it. But a Lott-Nickles ticket, if it emerges, would be a tough combination to beat.
How would a Senate led by Mr. Lott affect the dynamics of the presidential race? Much would depend on whether the Clinton White House and a more united congressional Republican leadership decide their opposing interests are better served by confrontation or common sense. The Clinton campaign benefited greatly by thwarting Mr. Dole's every move. And this was just fine with hard-liners in the House. But much could change with Mr. Dole out of the picture.
There remains considerable sentiment for passage of a bill guaranteeing that health insurance can be carried from job to job. There also could be a tradeoff in which the Democrats get a higher minimum wage and Republican repeal the 4.3-cent gasoline tax hike.
Over the long run, a majority leadership post for Senator Lott would accelerate the Republican Party's move to the South, the West and the right that began with the GOP's nomination of Barry Goldwater of 1964.
Pub Date: 5/17/96