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In Lott, Senate Can Expect an Unconventional Leader

Congress: Dole's likely successor is aggressive, confrontational. But others see a pragmatic side.

June 11, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate has rarely seen anyone quite like Trent Lott of Mississippi. The brash, ambitious Republican who is expected to become Senate majority leader this week has gotten where he is by means not often used in the genteel Senate: He steps on toes, lots of them.

Lott seized his place as the second-ranking Senate Republican two years ago by deposing a popular incumbent to become majority whip. He climbed over his state's senior senator, a fellow Republican, in the process. And along the way, he openly criticized a committee chairman with three times his seniority for not hewing to the party line.

In sum, Lott's moves have openly defied the traditional respect for seniority and the elaborate rituals of deference that have defined the Senate for decades. They also provide important clues about how he will lead the Senate if, as his colleagues predict, he is anointed majority leader after Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole steps down today.

For most of its history, the Senate, designed under the Constitution to be a deliberative, slow-moving counterweight to a more populist and impassioned House, has been reluctant to depart from tradition and often has sanded off the rough edges of House legislation.

But in the politics of the 1990s, a growing number of junior Republicans wants the Senate to be more partisan and less tolerant of mavericks within GOP ranks. To behave, in short, much like the more zealously conservative House.

All signs suggest that Lott would take the Senate deeper into that unfamiliar territory. His aggressive, confrontational style invites comparisons to his longtime ally, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But many of Lott's supporters say that his reputation as a Gingrich-style conservative is sometimes tempered by a pragmatic, deal-making streak.

"Trent is considered a little bit of a young Turk, shake-'em-up kind of guy, but he is also a guy that knows how to bring people together," said freshman Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "He is a very good transition from Bob Dole to the new generation that is beginning to take over the Senate. He's got one foot in each camp."

The one person standing between Lott and the majority leader's job is Thad Cochran--a fellow Mississippi Republican who also is running to succeed Dole. However, many senators believe that Lott has enough votes to win Wednesday's balloting and are treating his victory as a foregone conclusion.

Lott's election as leader would be a milestone in the advance of a younger generation of combative conservatives who have increasingly dominated the GOP. Lott, at age 54 and with nearly 24 years of congressional service, is no backbencher but he shares with many "young Turks" a formative experience: He spent 16 years in the House from 1973-89, when the GOP seemed hopelessly mired in the minority.

Younger Republicans, led by Gingrich, have struggled to develop more confrontational tactics to draw sharper distinctions between the two parties. While in the House, Lott was sympathetic to that approach while rising to the No. 2 leadership position of minority whip.

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In a storied 1984 confrontation, Lott defended Gingrich against criticism by House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) that was so harsh the Democrat's words were stricken from the record at Lott's behest--a rare form of House discipline.

As House GOP whip, Lott developed a highly structured organization for maintaining party discipline. He has tried to replicate that in the Senate but the upper chamber is more individualistic and less receptive to whip-cracking by the leadership.

Lott's ideas about party discipline and the Senate's more freewheeling approach clashed in early 1995, when he rebuked Appropriations Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) for casting the only GOP vote--and the deciding one--against a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

"I think it exhibited an awful lot of arrogance," Lott said in a television interview.

His comments were a remarkable departure from senators' deep aversion to criticizing each other in public. However, Lott's view was shared by younger Republicans, such as Santorum, who mounted an unsuccessful effort to strip Hatfield of his chairmanship on grounds that GOP leaders should back the party line on major issues.

Lott rankled other senior senators when he ran for whip in 1994. It was an unusual challenge to a sitting leader--Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.)--that was particularly brazen because Simpson is one of Dole's closest friends. In the process, Lott offended Cochran, his home-state elder who occupied the No. 3 leadership spot, by leapfrogging over him to the No. 2 job.

But Lott's reputation as an aggressive political operator has its down side. "There's always a suspicion that you are not quite sure what Trent's hidden agenda might be," said a top House GOP leadership aide who generally admires the Mississippian.

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