By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Four years after racially impolitic remarks cost him the Senate's top post, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) rejoined Congress's leadership ranks yesterday when his Republican colleagues turned to the veteran insider and skilled vote-counter to help them plot their return to majority status.
By a 25 to 24 secret-ballot vote, Lott defeated Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) for the position of minority whip, the party's second-highest post. As expected, GOP senators elected Mitch McConnell (Ky.) as Senate minority leader for the new Congress that will convene in January. But his victory was tempered by Lott's come-from-behind win over Alexander, who was seen as McConnell's and the Bush administration's preferred choice for whip.
Lott's feat ranks among the more impressive political comebacks of recent times, just as his fall from grace in December 2002 was spectacular and painful. At a 100th-birthday party for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Lott said the nation "wouldn't have had all these problems" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Thurmond had run on a segregationist platform as a Dixiecrat that year, and critics denounced the remarks as racist.
Lott said he was simply flattering an old man. But Bush administration supporters and other Republicans helped engineer his ouster just as he was about to become Senate majority leader again after the 2002 midterm elections, replacing him with Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Now Frist is retiring, and Republicans are reeling from last week's elections, which gave Democrats a 51 to 49 edge in the Senate and a bigger margin in the House.
As GOP senators emerged from their closed-door meeting at the Capitol yesterday, several said the shock of last week's results prompted wavering colleagues to vote for Lott, who has spent 34 years in Congress (to Alexander's four), and much time negotiating deals and crafting compromises.
"We're going through a major transformation from the majority to minority status in both the House and Senate," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a prominent GOP moderate and Lott supporter. "So it does require somebody who's got that institutional knowledge and appreciation for what it's going to take not only to rebuild Republicans within the institution but also nationally." Implicitly noting that Lott has never been close to President Bush, Snowe added that "there are times when you can't put all your eggs in the president's basket."
The White House said Bush, en route to Singapore, telephoned Lott from Air Force One to congratulate him.
Snowe said she thinks that Americans are ready to forgive Lott's Thurmond remarks. "He regrets it and has apologized," she said. "I think people have admired how he has been able to come back from that. He paid a heavy price, and he deeply regrets that, obviously."
Lott, 65, was uncharacteristically mum after the elections, telling reporters that it was McConnell's day to shine. Asked if he had any new reflections on the 1948 presidential race, he laughed and said, "Oh no, not at all. I'm strictly looking forward."
Almost from the day he joined the House in 1973, Lott -- a former cheerleader at the University of Mississippi -- was a genial and savvy insider who craved leadership posts. He was elected House minority whip in 1980, and 14 years later he became the first Republican to have been elected whip in both chambers. In that 1994 Senate GOP election, much like yesterday's, most party leaders opposed Lott, but many rank-and-file members rewarded him for years of friendship and guidance. He was Senate majority leader from June 1996 through mid-2001, except for a brief period in January 2001.
Yesterday, colleagues said the GOP's new minority status calls for a leader who has lived through such an experience and knows when to cut deals with the majority and when to stand firm. Alexander, a former governor and two-time presidential candidate, is well-liked, said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a Lott supporter. "But, at the end of the day, what helped swing it for Lott was that experience in the minority and knowing what the tactics and rules of engagement are," he said.
Referring to Lott's Thurmond comments, Thune said that Americans believe in redemption. "It's one of those things that happened fairly long ago," he said, "and people have moved on."
Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was less forgiving. "For many African Americans the sting of Trent Lott's hurtful words are unlikely to expire anytime soon," he said in a written statement. "However, his Republican colleagues have given him a second chance to address many of the glaring disparities that impact poor people, particularly African Americans, that he and his party have ignored for so long."