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Correction to This Article
This article misstated the length of Sen. Trent Lott's service in Congress. He has served 35 years, not 34. The article also omitted the name of the senator for whom Eric Ueland served as chief of staff. It was Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

As Lott Leaves the Senate, Compromise Appears to Be a Lost Art

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), smiling after announcing in Pascagoula, Miss., that he is resigning from the Senate, has spent 34 years in Congress.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), smiling after announcing in Pascagoula, Miss., that he is resigning from the Senate, has spent 34 years in Congress. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In January, as a dormant Senate chamber entered its fourth hour of inaction and a major ethics bill lay tangled in knots, Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took to the Senate floor with a plaintive plea.

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"Here we are, the sun has set on Thursday. It is a quarter to 6. The sun officially went down at 5:13. We are like bats," the veteran lawmaker lamented to a near-empty chamber. "Hello, it is a quarter to 6. . . . I have called everybody involved. I have been to offices. I have been stirring around, scurrying around. Is there an agenda here?"

The next 10 months appear to have given him the answer. A major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws went down in flames. Just two of a dozen annual spending bills passed Congress, and one of those was vetoed. Repeated efforts to force a course change in Iraq ended in recrimination and stalemate. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) filed 56 motions to break off filibusters to try to complete legislation, a total that is nearing the record of 61 such "cloture motions" in a two-year Congress.

And on Monday, Lott, one of the Senate's consummate dealmakers, called it quits.

"Is he the most frustrated he's ever been? Probably not," said David Hoppe, Lott's longtime chief of staff, now with the lobbying firm Quinn, Gillespie & Associates. "But frustration is cumulative."

Lott's departure from Capitol Hill in the coming weeks after 34 years in Congress -- 16 in the House, 18 in the Senate -- is further evidence that bonhomie and cross-party negotiating are losing their currency, even in the backslapping Senate. With the Senate populated by a record number of former House members, the rules of the Old Boys' Club are giving way to the partisan trench warfare and party-line votes that prevail in the House. States once represented by common-ground dealmakers, including John Breaux (D-La.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), are now electing ideological stalwarts, such as David Vitter (R-La.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

"The Senate is predicated on the ability of people being able to work together," said former senator Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who was majority whip for much of Lott's years as majority leader. "I'm not throwing rocks at anybody, but there's just been a lot less of that."

Former majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed: "Senator Lott's resignation means the loss of one of the few Republicans in leadership who often excelled in finding compromise and common ground."

Lott has never been a policy moderate, inclined to reach agreement with Democrats on ideological grounds. But he has almost always been a pragmatist, relishing the art of the deal. Just last month, as he labored to crack a wall of Democratic opposition to the confirmation of U.S. Appeals Judge Leslie H. Southwick, Lott wondered aloud to an aide why he was working so hard for a man he did not really know and for someone who was much more closely allied with Mississippi's other Republican senator, Thad Cochran.

"I said to him, 'You know, it's not that you like Southwick. You just like the process. You want the deal,' and he just smiled," recalled the Lott aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was divulging private deliberations. "It was a game. It was, 'Let me figure out how to get this done.' "

Such dealmakers still wander the Senate's halls: Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.). And others could arise as a generation schooled in pragmatism -- such as John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) -- heads for the exits next year.

"Just because an individual leaves doesn't mean you're not going to find new centers to structure work in the United States Senate," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to former majority leader (R-Tenn.). Lott would "be the first to say that no individual is indispensable."


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