Lott appears ready to re-emerge as GOP leader


WASHINGTON -- As the Senate struggled recently to resolve an impasse over immigration reform, Sen. John Cornyn needed advice from an expert.

He did not turn to President Bush nor to Majority Leader Bill Frist.

"I said, 'Trent, how do we get out of this mess?'" said Cornyn, a Texas Republican, referring to Sen. Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader from Mississippi whose knack for legislative strategy remains undiminished, if newly appreciated.

Lott was forced from his leadership post in 2002 after he praised then-Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

But a little more than three years later, Lott has re-emerged as the go-to guy in the Senate when his GOP colleagues need legislative help, and he may again seek a leadership job next year.

With Bush and congressional Republicans facing criticism for ostensible incompetence and lack of accomplishments, Lott's renewed appeal, despite the taint of the event that brought him down, is a measure of the urgency with which Congress and the public want someone with a talent for getting things done.

Lott has been functioning as a sort of shadow Senate leader, guiding Republican strategy and negotiating with Democrats.

"Sen. Lott is as relevant as ever," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "He has proved to me that leadership is more than just a title."

Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, agreed.

"He unquestionably is probably one of the best floor tacticians I have encountered in my 28 years here," Warner said. "Like E.F. Hutton, when he speaks, people listen."

Washington long has been home to the comeback and the second act. A disgraced Richard Nixon became an elder statesman, an impeached Bill Clinton is a respected political strategist and a convicted Oliver North is a popular radio host.

While powerful lawmakers like Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay quit Congress in their hour of disgrace, Lott chose instead to accept his reduced stature, stay in the Senate and quietly fight his way back.

"It's a unique Washington story," said Marshall Wittmann, a longtime observer of Congress at the Democratic Leadership Council. "Usually you rise, you fall and then you become a lucrative lobbyist. Here's a case where he rose, he fell and he stuck it out in the institution."

The re-emergence of Lott, trim and tall with an almost too-perfect politician's head of thick hair, follows a dramatic collapse after years of steady ascent up the leadership ladder. Lott was forced to relinquish the Senate's top job in December 2002 after praising Thurmond's 1948 presidential run at Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

To some, Lott's words suggested support for a segregationist platform. To others, the ensuing firestorm simply made Lott a liability to the Republicans.

His quiet resurrection comes as Frist, a Tennessee Republican, is preparing to leave the Senate and run for president after missteps diminished his clout. Frist appeared to render a medical opinion on a comatose Terri Schiavo from the Senate floor. He brought the chamber to the brink of a crisis over judicial nominations. Some say he has repeatedly placed his presidential ambition above the smooth functioning of the Senate.

"Lott benefits partly from the comparison," said a senior Republican in the Senate. "We have a majority leader who can't run a conga line. Here's a guy who understands the rules and knows how to move things along."

That knowledge has been notably on display in recent weeks. Lott helped shepherd lobbying and ethics legislation through the Senate in record time. He pushed Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to resolve a quarrel over pension reform. And he has been a key player in backroom tax negotiations.

A Frist spokesman said he welcomes the help.

"Sen. Frist always values Sen. Lott's input and opinion as he goes about his work here in the Senate," Elie Teichman said.

In an hourlong interview in his spacious suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, Lott said he is proud of making deals and acknowledged he is contemplating running for the Senate leadership next year. Describing himself as "a happy warrior," Lott said he wakes up every morning eager to enter the fray.

"I always am going to try to be involved and engaged in what the Senate is doing because why else would you be here?" he said.

As he moves through the Capitol corridors, Lott seems content, smiling and sometimes whistling while trailed by a heavy contingent of reporters.

"There's a lightness about him that wasn't there when he was leader," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican.

Without directly criticizing Frist, Lott expressed frustration that the Senate's legislative trains have come to a standstill.

"My motto has always been 'Act, act,'" he said. His next move might be a bid for an official leadership post next year, perhaps seeking the job of Republican whip, the No. 2 slot. But Lott said he was not "obsessed" with the idea.

"I am OK with the role I'm playing now," he said.

While some senators have urged Lott to run for leadership, not everyone believes reinstating Lott is a good idea. Some say the baggage from his Thurmond comments remains damaging and that the party needs a fresh face.

But even some Democrats have kind words for Lott, both for his legislative savvy and for his return from political exile.

"I believe in redemption, personally and politically," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader. "We all make mistakes. Tomorrow is another day. As far as I'm concerned, he has apologized for it, and we all should move on." Durbin himself was forced to apologize last year after comparing U.S. treatment of detainees to the tactics of the Nazis and Soviets.

For all his talk of being at peace, Lott clearly remains piqued at losing his post to Frist, and he has not completely forgiven those who he feels turned their backs on him. In March, The Galveston County Daily News reported that Lott said Frist "won't go down in history as one of the greats."

Lott said he sometimes wonders if the Thurmond incident will ever fade.

"It's still a paragraph in every news story," he said. "I don't know how long it will take to get out of LexisNexis [a media database]. Maybe never. That will be in my final obituary."

Still, he added, "That obituary will be a lot longer than it would have been if I had just said 'adios.'"

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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