Lott Exit Spurs Republican Scrum


By: Wall Street Journal

Leadership Contests Could Mark a Shift Further to the Right
By DAVID ROGERS

WASHINGTON — The departure of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott will cost Congress one of its premiere deal makers and opens the door to a further shift to the right by Senate Republicans.

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl appears all but certain to get the whip post now held by Mr. Lott and would bring a more confrontational style to the No. 2 leadership job. Skirmishes were already taking shape yesterday between younger Senate conservatives and the Republicans’ increasingly isolated moderate wing, which is trying to hold onto a place in the party leadership.

The turmoil comes at a critical stage for Congress. When lawmakers return next week, they face a wealth of unfinished work but also potential for year-end deals on everything from spending bills to child-health-care, farm and energy legislation. In another time, it would be a target-rich environment for a deal maker like Mr. Lott, but with his departure by the end of December, the ensuing leadership contests could lead to more confrontation.

Elected to the House in 1972, Mr. Lott symbolized the ascent of the Southern Republican wing under Ronald Reagan. The son of a shipyard worker, he always maintained a populist streak that softened his conservative edge, however, and invited deals with Democrats.

Mr. Lott was the first modern House Republican whip from the Deep South, and after moving to the Senate in 1988, he succeeded former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas as majority leader when Mr. Dole ran for president in 1996. As fast as he rose, Mr. Lott fell harder, forced out of the leadership in 2002 amid a controversy over remarks he made at a birthday party celebrating the career of a onetime Dixiecrat segregationist, former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

In what he said was an attempt at humor, Mr. Lott suggested the nation would have been better off if it had listened more to Mr. Thurmond, but the comments provoked anger from not just African-American leaders, but also fellow conservatives and the White House under President Bush. Mr. Lott was humiliated but held onto his seat, not only running for re-election but mounting a rare comeback inside the Senate, winning back the whip spot he had held in the past.

Yesterday, he said he felt “no malice and no anger” in making his decision to step down. But his answers to questions reflected some frustration: “I like being a happy warrior,” Mr. Lott said. “I don’t like some of the negativism that we’re dealing with now.”

“He’s probably the best deal maker at crossing the aisle that I’ve ever seen, but that’s all locked down now,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.). “Sure he’s frustrated.”

One legacy will be the number of Southerners who dominate what could be the most telling leadership fight now: for the No. 3 post, chair of the Republican conference. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the party’s most senior female senator, hopes to win the job but faces opposition from North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who is identified with younger party conservatives. And Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a more moderate figure akin to Ms. Hutchison, signaled last night that he will run for the post, posing another hurdle for the Texan.

Mr. Lott made his announcement yesterday in his historical home base of Pascagoula. The 66-year-old lawmaker will resign having completed only one year of the term to which he was elected in 2006.

His decision to run then surprised some of his closest advisers, but he argued it was necessary to help his home state recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He suffered financially as a result of losses in the storm and has been hinting of resigning in recent months to make money outside Congress.

New Senate ethics rules, which take effect at the end of the year and impose a longer “cooling off” period before he could lobby his colleagues, may have contributed to his timing. Also, the recent announcement by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran that he will seek re-election likely assures Mississippi of having a continued strong presence in Washington and makes it easier for Mr. Lott to make his exit.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said he will name an interim replacement for Mr. Lott within 10 days after his resignation takes effect, and a special election will be held Nov. 4, 2008, to pick a successor for the remainder of Mr. Lott’s term, which ends in 2012.

Write to David Rogers at david.rogers@wsj.com

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