LEAKESVILLE, Miss. -- Trent Lott is reminiscing with supporters at the Rocky Creek Catfish Cottage, recalling the goat barbecues and Jaycee meetings that marked his first House campaign 33 years ago. But the senator draws the biggest whoops when he mentions the "little bump in the road" he hit in December 2002, when his return to the position of Senate majority leader was scuttled by what some saw as nostalgic words about segregation.
All Washington thought he was finished. "But they don't know us as Mississippians," Lott chortles as heads nod around the dining room. "You get back up on it and you ride again."
It takes a certain determination for a politician to fall so spectacularly from grace and then refuse to go away. Lott, 63, a shipyard worker's son who grew up in Pascagoula, is clawing his way back to power because, well, he can't help himself. "I'm just rooting around trying to find ways to be useful," Lott said recently during a visit back home, ticking off a few of his projects: helping to arrange a deal on the 2006 budget, working to change immigration laws and pass highway funding, and trying to quell a Democratic uprising over judicial nominations. "Maybe what I'm doing is what comes naturally to me."
Lott's demise after six years as majority leader and Republican leader was self-inflicted. At Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party Dec. 5, 2002 -- a month after the Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate from the Democrats -- Lott noted Thurmond's 1948 run for president on the anti-civil-rights "Dixiecrat" ticket and said that "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" had Thurmond won. Lott insisted he was just trying to flatter the old man, but once the line received widespread media attention it triggered a national furor.
Lott apologized repeatedly for his remarks; appeared on Black Entertainment Television to swear allegiance to civil rights, including affirmative action; and called colleagues to explain and apologize.
But nothing worked. African Americans seethed, some conservatives joined liberals in calling for his resignation, and President Bush sharply criticized him. Lott resigned as majority leader-designate in late December and was succeeded by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a favorite of the White House. While Frist is as conservative as Lott on many issues, Frist has a smoother image and the administration viewed him as a more reliable partner.
Lott took his consolation prize, the chairmanship of the Rules and Administration Committee, and turned it into a power base for dispensing favors, such as new computers and extra office space. He increased his profile by helping to organize Bush's second inauguration in January.
In recent months, Lott also has made a determined effort to ingratiate himself with some of the Senate leaders who helped depose him -- although his relationship with the White House appears to remain strained. This new, cooperative spirit in the Senate has raised a few eyebrows among Lott's colleagues, who wonder whether he's plotting a leadership comeback.
Lott does little to discourage speculation that he might make another run at a leadership job. "If the right circumstances came along, I might do it again," he said. Lott said he finds Senate whip the most appealing post, because the whip is in the thick of everything but "doesn't have to make every damn decision," as Lott puts it.
It all depends on how the next year or two shake out. Lott has to decide for certain that he will run for a fourth term in 2006, though he says that is his intention. Frist plans to retire from the Senate next year, and his successor is all but certain to be Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the current majority whip. Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican, is slotted to move into McConnell's current post. But Santorum is expected to face a reelection fight in Pennsylvania next year. If he loses, that could be Lott's opening.
Frist said he has been "very encouraging" of Lott's involvement in legislative business and says he "will continue to depend significantly" on his predecessor in the months ahead.
Lott launched his freelance dealmaking last year. When the Senate was struggling to pass a corporate tax bill, Lott targeted Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), who faced pressure from other Democrats to block the legislation. Lott reminded him the bill was chock full of benefits for South Dakota, where Daschle was battling for reelection. Daschle eventually supported the bill, which passed, although it did little to help Daschle -- he lost to Republican John Thune.
According to Frist and others, Lott helped to advance class-action and bankruptcy legislation -- bills that finally passed the Senate earlier this year. A few days before the Easter recess, Lott jumped into the 2006 budget debate when moderate Republicans rebelled over $14 billion in Medicaid cost reductions.
It was typical Lott maneuvering. He approached Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee oversees Medicaid, and offered to help thwart moderates' effort to protect the funding. Knowing Lott's low-income state was particularly dependent on Medicaid, Grassley said he responded, "I need you to argue against this amendment." Lott hurried to the floor. The moderates succeeded in blocking the Medicaid cuts, but Lott is trying to work out a separate compromise to win their support on the final bill.
"I don't think this is about Trent Lott trying to rehabilitate himself," Grassley said. "I think this is about Trent Lott's respect for the U.S. Senate."
Lott, a lawyer and a graduate of the University of Mississippi, was elected majority leader in 1996, just eight years after winning a Senate seat. He served as Senate majority leader until June 2001, when the Democrats claimed control of the Senate after James M. Jeffords (Vt.) defected from the GOP to become an independent.
As much as he enjoys running things, Lott is an old-school lawmaker who learned Congress's rules, customs and personalities as a way to squeeze out everything he can for his state. At events back home, he barely mentions big Washington agenda items such as the Social Security private investment accounts that Bush is championing. Instead he fixates on local issues, with the familiarity of a small-town mayor.
Lott is legendary for winning federal projects and military contracts for his state -- especially for the shipyards in his home town of Pascagoula -- and for his no-holds-barred efforts to bring investment to his state.
He played a prominent role in bringing a new $1.4 billion Nissan minivan and truck assembly plant to Canton, Miss., and one of his pet projects is to get the New Orleans Saints football team to relocate to the Gulf Coast. "Let's go for something beyond our reach and see if we can get it," Lott said at a recent Rotary Club luncheon.
County delegations parade through Lott's Senate office knowing he will embrace even the most parochial cause. In 1997, Lott fixed a quirk in the Internal Revenue Service code that hurt Mississippi county court clerks. In last year's corporate tax bill, Mississippi barge operators, shipbuilders and timber owners got special breaks.
Mississippians say they are unfazed by Lott's troubles. They regard the senator as family, who staffs his Pascagoula office with old high school friends and views life the Mississippi way, as anything but easy street.
Jim Herring, the state Republican Party chairman, says of his old friend: "He's more himself. What you see now is the real Trent Lott personality -- more outspoken and independent."
Having nothing to lose has made Lott one of most of the colorful figures in the Senate and one of the few Republicans willing to stray publicly from the party fold.
Given how Bush and some of his GOP colleagues abandoned him, Lott figures he owes them nothing. "I feel perfectly at liberty now to shoot at anyone," Lott told Rotary Club luncheon guests. He then proceeded to say of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, "His degree of arrogance just turns me off."
Another Lott target is a White House commission on military base closings, which the senator views as a threat to installations in Mississippi. Hoping to slow the commission's work, he blocked the confirmation of the commission's designated chairman, Anthony J. Principi. Last week, Bush used his recess-appointment power to install Principi, along with eight other commission members, while Congress was away on an Easter break.
"He did what he had to," Lott said of Bush. The senator said he is considering his next move. "Everything in the Senate relates to everything else," Lott told reporters cheerfully. "I'm never done."
Some observers, including senators and aides who do not care for Lott, speculate that he is engaging in advance damage control, in the event his forthcoming memoir portrays those behind his downfall in a harsh light. Lott says the book will look broadly at his entire career. But he said he does "make it clear" that he was not pleased with how Bush responded to the controversy over his 2002 Thurmond birthday party remarks, and that "I would have been leader today if Frist hadn't made his move."