WASHINGTON -- A new generation of aggressive Southern conservatives completed its takeover of Congress yesterday with the selection of Trent Lott of Mississippi to succeed Bob Dole as Senate majority leader.
Lott, a 54-year-old hard-liner with close ties to House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, crushed his lone challenger and fellow Mississippian, Thad Cochran, by a vote of 44 to 8 in secret balloting by Senate Republicans.
Senators attributed the victory largely to Lott's unabashed pursuit of the post for months -- long before it was clear when the 72-year-old Dole would be giving it up.
Many senators, in fact, had already committed themselves to Lott, who served as Dole's No. 2 man, before the more easy-going, nonconfrontational Cochran entered the race.
But the lopsided tally was also a tacit endorsement of Lott's brand of results-oriented leadership, an endorsement that came even from some of the dwindling band of Republican moderates.
"I just thought it over and came to the conclusion that Lott would do a better job," said Sen. John C. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican who supports gun control, abortion rights and other moderate causes that Lott opposes.
No major changes in agenda or structure are likely until the new Congress takes office next year. But Lott committed himself to fulfilling the top policy goals set by Dole and to helping promote Dole's election as president.
"The torch has been passed, but the flame is the same," Lott said at a news conference at which the new Republican leadership was introduced, one day after Dole resigned from the Senate to campaign full time.
"Our agenda will be the same as the one Bob Dole laid out for us," Lott said. "We do want to control the size and scope of government. We do want to control the rate of growth of government, in fact reduce it as years go by. We do want to balance the budget by 2002. We are absolutely committed to that."
Among his goals will be to prod the Senate through the business of striking a budget and a few other must-do matters as quickly as possible and then getting the senators home to campaign well before the November elections.
But prospects are high for a more unified and activist Republican Senate next year -- and thus perhaps a more unified and activist Republican Congress -- one freed from the moderating influence not only of Dole but also of other centrist senators who are retiring.
"There's likely to be a more aggressive tone" in the Senate, said Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
"I think it's heading that way already," said David Mason, a congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that works closely with the Republican majority. "I think you'll see a smoother relationship with the House and less power for
committee chairmen to thwart the clear will of the Republican majority."
Both houses of Congress are now run by a roster thick with Southern and Western conservatives.
In the House, besides Gingrich, there are the No. 2 Republican, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, and the No. 3, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.
Yesterday's changing of the guard in the Senate also installed Don Nickles, a 48-year-old former businessman from Oklahoma who is associated with the Senate's right wing, in the post of majority whip, where he will be Lott's second-in-command.
Cochran of Mississippi remains in the No. 3 job, as Republican conference chairman.
Lott, a nattily attired lawyer, has a voting record strong on defense and staunchly pro-business. He has favored tax cuts and the "family values" agenda of the Christian right while opposing much social spending.
As a member of the House for 16 years, Lott became the first Deep South Republican to serve as House minority whip. He was a mentor to many of the young Republicans who now run the House, notably Gingrich, who succeeded him as House minority whip.
Many lawmakers who know Lott well say he is unlikely to pursue quixotic ideological crusades. So long as Republicans lack the 60 votes needed to block a Senate filibuster, they must work with Democrats to get legislation passed.
"Lott is a pragmatic conservative; he's a can-do guy who likes to get things done," said Rep. Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican who served as one of Lott's House deputies. "He knows you have to have at least 51 percent."
The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, observed that he has much in common with Lott: He is about the same age and he arrived in the Senate, as Lott did, after service in the House and as a congressional staff member. Daschle said he hoped those bonds would make it easier for the two leaders "to come together in a spirit of bipartisanship."
Other congressional insiders predicted that Lott, like Dole and Gingrich, will find that the responsibilities of leadership will temper the urge to adopt unyielding ideological stances and strident rhetoric.
That is clearly the hope of the Democrats, who are wondering whether Dole's departure and relief from the pressure of presidential politics might now make compromise easier.
"Dole was much easier to work with when he wasn't running for president," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat.
"I'm not sure how much things are going to change this year, and hopefully after November, [when the Democrats have a long-shot chance to regain the Senate majority], it won't matter," he said.
Pub Date: 6/13/96