Lott gains firm grip in climb to top of Hill Voters deal strong hand to GOP Senate leader


WASHINGTON -- As Sen. Trent Lott surveys the post-election landscape, he can see that no other national political leader is better positioned than he.

President Clinton was, of course, re-elected. But his influence is limited because his Democratic Party failed to win a majority in either house of Congress. In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich clung to his Republican majority, but its ranks have thinned. Gingrich is also under siege by an ethics inquiry that makes it all but impossible for him to continue as the leading Republican voice on Capitol Hill.

Bob Dole, needless to say, is gone.

That leaves Lott, Dole's successor as Senate majority leader, in the driver's seat. A hard-charging conservative who wears a cell phone on his belt, Lott presides over the largest, and perhaps the most conservative, Republican Senate majority elected since the 1920s. That entitles him to call most of the shots.

"He's the top Republican leader on the Hill now, really the leader of the political opposition," said David Mason, a congressional analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Senate Republicans picked up two seats in the elections, giving Lott a healthy edge of 55 to 45 over the Democrats. His majority could grow even larger after the elections in 1998.

What's more, like Lott, the nine new Republican senators are more strictly conservative than their predecessors and make the Senate perhaps more conservative now than the House. Thus, after two years of serving as a brake on hard-line House Republicans, Lott's Senate could lead the charge, even if he still lacks the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters.

Within hours after the election, the Mississippi Republican was holding a news conference in the elegant Capitol office he

inherited from Dole, sending signals to the White House about just how he plans to run things next year.

"I think that it gives us a certain amount of confidence that the people have given us not only our majority back but some increased numbers," Lott told reporters. "I think they are going to look to us to provide some leadership."

Hard-line charm

The former college cheerleader from Ole Miss, who at 55 still flashes a Pepsodent smile and seems to have retained every strand of his thick brown hair, makes an ideal Republican point man. He was in the vanguard of a new generation of Southern conservatives who now dominate his party on Capitol Hill, but he never became a target of the liberal bombardment that has rained on Gingrich.

Lott is just as tough as -- and maybe more conservative than -- Gingrich, but "he doesn't seem as threatening," a Republican Senate aide explained. He's personable, gregarious, almost syrupy when he wants to lay on the Southern charm.

"He can jab in that stiletto and cut your heart out before you know what's happening, because he's smiling all the while," said an aide to a Senate Democrat.

In his own party, Lott has been regarded as breathtakingly ambitious, particularly by the more senior Republicans he leapfrogged over to reach the top job. Many of them, though, are now retired.

Questions of tactics

The latest Washington parlor game is guessing how Lott will deploy his new powers. Will he continue as the conciliatory deal-maker he became last summer, when he took over as majority leader and worked with Clinton to quickly complete most of the major achievements of the last Congress -- especially welfare reform, health insurance reform and an increase in the minimum wage?

Or will Lott be inclined to take a tougher line with the president, to try to force Clinton to make good on the centrist promises he made in the campaign, such as balancing the budget while still providing targeted tax cuts and protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment?

The smart money seems to be on a combination of the two. After last winter's budget debacle resulted in two partial shutdowns of the government for which most voters seemed to blame the GOP, few Republicans are urging another take-it-or-leave-it approach.

But Lott is still irritated with Clinton for having portrayed the Republicans as budget-slashing extremists during the campaign even though, as the White House acknowledges, the two sides were close to a budget deal.

Lott may thus want to exact some political penance from the president.

And, in fact, he has already made clear that he wants to return to the regular order of government in which a president offers his budget proposals first.

Most crucially, the Senate leader is determined to force Clinton to explain how he would control the escalating costs of Medicare, after having demonized the Republicans for offering a Medicare proposal that the president called a threat to senior citizens.

"First of all, he's got to admit that his program is not even a fig leaf of the real problem," Lott said of Clinton at his news conference. "He's got to basically admit that he demagogued it. He's got to say something about the problems of Medicare. And then, we'll see."

The point is to make Clinton acknowledge that the growth of Medicare costs cannot be restrained without unpopular changes and to make the president ask Congress to join him in making such changes.

"Lott's going to play rope-a-dope with Clinton, make him do all the dancing and punching for a while," said Frederick Graefe, a lobbyist on health care issues with close ties to the Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

It's hardly clear that Clinton will dance to Lott's tune.

When Clinton met a few days ago with Lott, Gingrich and other congressional leaders, the president tried to persuade them to quickly resume talks on a balanced budget where they had left off last winter, and to pass off the issue of Medicare financing to a bipartisan commission.

Clinton was rebuffed. But he hasn't given up, said Mike McCurry, his spokesman. The budget proposal Clinton is to formally present to Congress in February is expected to include a call for a bipartisan commission on Medicare.

Lott may not be able to resist the commission proposal indefinitely. His Republican colleagues are also likely to be seeking political cover for any increase in Medicare premiums or reduction in benefits -- two proposals they backed last year and were pounded for in public opinion polls.

The white-hot issue of campaign finance reform is another topic where Lott has weighed in with firm views. Clinton is backing a bill that calls for voluntary spending limits in congressional races in return for free television time.

"There is no such thing as free time," Lott says. "Somebody's paying for that, or somebody's going to have to pay more to make up for that."

Lott also ridicules the notion of moving toward a system of public campaign financing, calling it "food stamps for politicians." He favors stricter disclosure and reporting requirements but not necessarily limits on contributions and spending. He says, though, that he is willing to look at a broad overhaul of the entire campaign financing system.

Gingrich has been uncharacteristically subdued in this post-election jockeying. He drew so much opposition during the two years he was king of the Hill that opinion polls suggest that Gingrich is now the most unpopular politician in the country.

Though Gingrich attended the White House session with Clinton, he has avoided news conferences and photo opportunities.

"Newt is past the point where he has to be out front, seen as the general leading his troops up the hill," said Rich Galen, a Gingrich aide.

In fact, the House speaker is busy working behind the scenes just to keep from being toppled from his speakership by critics within his own party.

It helps, Galen says, that Gingrich and Lott are friends, former comrades in a once-tiny conservative insurgency within House Republican ranks. They spent a decade on the back benches before throwing off the old-line pragmatic establishment types, personified in the Senate by Dole.

"They are very different guys, but so close they speak in shorthand and finish each other's sentences," Galen said.

Thus, it is natural and not at all threatening that Lott should now be "filling in the gap" left by Gingrich's lower public profile, the speaker's aide added.

Even so, there is a clear sense among all the factions on Capitol Hill and in the White House that the Republican leadership mantle has passed from the House of Gingrich to the Senate under Lott.

"I think there's a feeling that the House had its shot," said Will Feltus, staff director for the Senate Republican Conference. "Now, it's our turn."

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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