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Lott bounces from oblivion to seize Senate power post

A racially insensitive remark led to his fall from grace in 2002.

November 16, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even in a city known for career comebacks, it was a remarkable rebound.

Four years after racially insensitive remarks toppled him from one of Capitol Hill's preeminent posts, Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi on Wednesday reclaimed a position of power, winning election as Senate minority whip.

Lott's narrow victory in a vote among his colleagues to be their No. 2 leader was a testament to his undiminished legislative skills -- as well as a sign of President Bush's diminished clout after the GOP's loss of its majorities in the Senate and House in last week's midterm election.

"I feel exhilarated," Lott said after his win, adding that he was looking forward to doing "a job that I've always really loved the most -- count the votes" as the Senate considers legislation.

Lott has had chilly relations with the White House since he was forced out as the Senate's Republican leader in 2002 after a remark he made praising Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

The remark set off a national uproar; those rebuking Lott included Bush. And with the president's political team focused on its goal of attracting more black voters to the GOP, the White House's response to the furor helped hasten Lott's fall.

The strained feelings that persist between Lott and the administration took a backseat to other considerations among the 49 Republican senators who cast ballots Wednesday. Several said they voted to return Lott to a leadership position because of his legislative and political skills.

Those talents were in evidence as Lott defeated Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee in the secret ballot for the whip's job, 25 to 24.

Alexander had openly campaigned for the job for more than a year and thought he had it locked up. Lott just recently decided to seek the position and quietly rounded up support.

"Senators, like most Americans, like a comeback," Alexander said after the Republicans emerged from behind closed doors. He added that Lott "proved to be a better vote counter," a major task for the whip.

Lott's political acumen also was on display when, after the vote, he limited his comments and sought not to steal the spotlight from party's newly anointed Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky,

"I'm honored to be a part of this leadership team to support Mitch McConnell and all of my colleagues," Lott said.

Lott's reemergence could hurt efforts by Bush and his political team to woo black voters -- an outreach that so far has paid few dividends.

Some African American leaders criticized Lott's selection; an official with the NAACP said that the senator scored an "F" on the group's report card on 2005 votes in Congress on civil rights issues.

"We're deeply concerned," said Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"For many African Americans, the sting of Trent Lott's hurtful words are unlikely to expire anytime soon," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus.

Lott's colleagues extolled his ability to move bills through Congress -- a knack that some, including Lott, have said they found lacking in retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

"He's a proven leader," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of Lott, calling him "the most adept at getting legislation passed of anybody I've ever known."

Thomas Mann, an expert on the workings of Congress at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, termed Lott's return to leadership "another reminder to the White House how different Congress will be during the next two years."

John J. Pitney Jr., a former staff member at the Republican National Committee who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College, characterized Lott's selection as "a declaration of independence from President Bush" by Senate Republicans.

He also said that with the GOP about to become the chamber's minority party, the Republicans would "have to rely on procedural warfare" in pressing their views.

"And nobody on the GOP side knows the rules better than Trent Lott," Pitney said.

Lott, a onetime Democrat, was elected to the House as a Republican in 1972. Elected to the Senate in 1988, he served as majority leader from 1996 until mid-2001, when the GOP lost control of the chamber.

After Republicans reclaimed the majority in the 2002 election, he was preparing to assume his former post. But his fortunes took a dramatic turn in December at a party in Washington commemorating Thurmond's 100th birthday.

Lott noted that Thurmond, then a long-serving GOP senator from South Carolina, had carried Mississippi in 1948 when he ran for president as a Dixiecrat. "We're proud of it," Lott said. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

As criticism mounted over Lott's comment, he apologized repeatedly for what he termed "a poor choice of words" during a lighthearted celebration. He insisted he had not meant to endorse segregation.

But the controversy persisted. Rights groups said Lott's remark called attention to his past opposition to civil rights measures. Bush joined the fray, assailing Lott's remarks as "offensive" and "wrong."

The president's words dealt a serious blow to Lott's chances of holding onto his job. Fifteen days after the birthday party, he abandoned his fight and his GOP colleagues voted for Frist as his successor.

"I think most people think he paid a pretty heavy price for the mistake that he made," McCain said Wednesday. "We all believe in redemption, thank God."

Lott, 65, said: "I'm strictly looking forward."


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