Lott's Departure May Set Off a Competition

By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sen. Trent Lott's resignation next month has set off a game of political musical chairs among Republicans seeking to move up in their leadership ranks.

Lott (Miss.) announced Monday that he will retire from the Senate by the end of next month, vacating his post as minority whip, the second-ranking Republican. This set in motion a brief race to succeed him and as many as three more intramural contests for lower-level leadership positions among Republicans hoping for a steppingstone to greater prominence in the Capitol.

Depending on who ends up in which chair, the GOP leadership team could look almost identical to its current six-senator lineup -- or be dramatically skewed toward a much younger, slightly more conservative and much more confrontational group.

"I think there's an opportunity here for some new blood," said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), 46, who was elected in 2004 and is openly considering several spots.

At this early juncture, three positions are secure. Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 3 GOP leader, will move up to Lott's job as minority whip without opposition, according to interviews with senators and aides. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the party's political campaign committee, are set.

But with Kyl abandoning his post as Republican conference chairman (the person in charge of party message operations), the most open warfare is taking place among Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), who want that job. The result of that contest will determine the number of other leadership spots up for grabs.

Hutchison, the only woman in Republican leadership since 2001, holds the chair of the Policy Committee, considered the fourth-ranking slot.

Few of the dozen Republican aides and senators interviewed would talk on the record about the secret-ballot vote scheduled for Dec. 6, but all handicapped the races.

Hutchison, 64, elected in 1993, is selling herself as a stay-the-course leader who provides diversity in the otherwise all-white, all-male team. Her contention is that the current leadership team has done a sound job of tying the chamber in knots and thwarting Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

But Hutchison is battling detractors who say she has one eye on the Senate and another on the Texas governor's mansion, which she has openly talked about seeking when the job comes open in 2010.

Alexander, 67, who lost a bid for minority whip to Lott by one vote last year, projects a conciliatory image of someone who has worked with Democrats and can bridge political divides. "What the Senate and the conference need more than anything right now is people committed to getting it done," said Tom Ingram, Alexander's top aide. "You can't pigeonhole Lamar."

Then there's Burr, 52, who is running with the backing of a number of Republicans elected in 2002 and 2004. They have been the most aggressive members of the minority, younger guns in search of confrontation with Reid and less conciliation.

If Hutchison wins Kyl's current job, her policy chairmanship would be open. The job includes a large staff and a wonkish agenda. The post would immediately attract Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), 55, who was elected in 2002. Other potential aspirants include Thune, who might make a late bid for conference chair.

A bid by Cornyn for policy chairman could open up his current position as vice chairman of the conference, the deputy messenger for the GOP. Most believe that opening would be filled by someone who identifies with the younger rabble-rousers, particularly Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) or Burr if he were to lose the fight for conference chairman.

But there is one potential scenario in which the leadership team ends up little changed: Alexander thwarts Hutchison for the No. 3 post and she remains in her spot as policy chair, leaving Cornyn in place as well.

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