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.
"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."
But with the Senate almost dysfunctional, those new power centers are difficult to find.
"The Senate is still a great deliberative body," Nickles said. "But it's a little less congenial and a little too partisan."
Lott made a career out of the art of the deal. In the summer of 1996, after then-Sen. Robert J. Dole resigned to pursue the White House full time, Lott took the reins of a Senate that had ground to a halt as Democrats moved to thwart GOP accomplishments ahead of the presidential election. Lott implored his colleagues to act.
In short order, Congress approved a major overhaul of the nation's welfare laws, cleared a bevy of other bills and cut a deal with the Clinton White House on annual spending bills. After the election, Hoppe recalled, Clinton called Lott to joke that had he not gotten the Senate back on track, the Democrats might well have recaptured a chamber of Congress.
The next year, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin -- both wealthy Wall Street financiers -- sat huddled in Lott's office, as Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tried to cut a final deal on a balanced budget agreement that included a cut to the capital gains tax rate.
"There they were, two Democrats who had been very successful in business, squaring off with two Republicans who didn't have two nickels to rub together," Hoppe recalled.
They struck a deal: Cut the capital gains rate and create a major federal program to offer health insurance to children of the working poor.
After the 2000 election, which left the Senate deadlocked at 50 seats apiece, Lott again struck a deal that angered many in his party. Although Republicans technically had control of the Senate with the vote of newly elected Vice President Cheney, Lott and Daschle agreed to evenly divide the committees. Moreover, they agreed, if one party won a majority midstream, either through a party switch, a resignation or a death, the other party would agree to relinquish control without a fight.
Lott reasoned that the deadlocked Senate could waste the first months of George W. Bush's fledgling presidency in a process fight, or he could relent early and get to work.
But such deals are getting harder to come by.
On June 7, as Lott absorbed increasingly virulent attacks from conservatives for his support of a bipartisan immigration overhaul, he took to the Senate floor for another appeal.
"This is the time where we are going to see whether we are a Senate anymore," he intoned. "Are we men or mice? Are we going to slither away from this issue and hope for some epiphany to happen? No. Let's legislate. Let's vote."
Three weeks later, the immigration bill fell to a Republican filibuster, and Congress slithered away from the issue.