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  •   A Legislative Engineer Who Switches Tracks

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 7, 1998; Page A01

    Washington likes its politicians to fit in neat little ideological holes. The trouble with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is that he keeps jumping out and moving somewhere else.

    A year ago, Lott drew praise from Democrats for reaching a deal with President Clinton to balance the budget. Meanwhile, conservatives were seething at him for helping pass the chemical weapons treaty and for sympathizing with a female Air Force pilot who had been accused of adultery.

    Now conservatives are cheered by his scuttling of the huge anti-smoking bill while Democrats are scolding him for helping torpedo campaign finance legislation, advocating more gun ownership and comparing homosexuality to sex addiction, alcoholism and kleptomania.

    "Surprise, surprise, I'm a conservative. Did you miss that?" Lott asked by way of explanation at a news conference as he pulled the tobacco bill from the Senate floor June 17. He acted after efforts to produce a filibuster-proof majority failed amid mounting Republican demands that the bill be dropped.

    "Sometimes," Lott said, "maybe [my position] appears more conservative than others."

    Clearly, this has been one of those times -- boosting his stock on the Republican right while undermining his earlier image as a generally pragmatic leader who can make the trains run on time and deliver the goods.

    But friends as well as foes caution against reading too much into Lott's seeming lurch to the right, noting that he is marching in step with Republican majorities in both houses as they try to fire up the party's conservative base -- on issues from abortion to taxes -- for a low-turnout midterm election this fall.

    Lott often seems to lean toward the right or the center on alternate days, shifting back and forth as the legislative and political needs arise. Sometimes he tries to do both at the same time, as he did on the tobacco bill in criticizing it as a big-government, big-tax bill even as he tried to keep it from collapsing.

    He brought the legislation before the Senate while griping about its contents and continued to criticize it publicly, even suggesting it was dead, during four weeks of inconclusive debate and votes on the Senate floor. At the same time he was working behind the scenes to help Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill's sponsor, keep it alive -- until, finally convinced it would never pass, he turned around and killed it. Now he is talking about reviving it in smaller form.

    "It wasn't a matter of moving to the right . . . it was reacting to the reality of the moment," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), an influential conservative and member of the GOP leadership.

    On nearly every major controversial bill that comes before the Senate, Lott is caught in a vise: His conservative-dominated caucus demands that he stand his ground on the right, while he needs, as majority leader, to cut deals that enable legislation to pass in a chamber where rules vest the minority party with enormous powers.

    As many conservatives see it, Lott is willing -- at times too willing, some think -- to make accommodations with Senate Democrats, GOP moderates and the White House in order to get legislation passed and signed into law. "He's willing to take criticism from those who want a more ideological position," said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a conservative and close friend.

    As some key Democrats see it, the reverse is true. They say Lott is beholden first to conservatives in his caucus -- more, they say, than was the case with his predecessor in the job, Robert J. Dole. Like Lott, Dole also had both conservative and pragmatic genes but usually seemed to put action ahead of ideology and paid a price in the form of constant trouble from conservatives.

    "From time to time [Lott] has these pangs of conscience and feels the need to do the right thing," said a Democratic senator who asked not to be named lest he antagonize the often thin-skinned Lott. "But when he gets heat he scurries back to the right to keep in [conservatives'] good graces. He feels threatened by them and feels a need to shore himself up on the right with some frequency."

    Lott also presents a personal anomaly: With his self-confident air and perfectly groomed appearance, he appears to be a model of the kind of order and control that he attempts to impose on the Senate. But he also has one of the sharpest and loosest tongues on Capitol Hill, with a tendency to say more when less might be safer. He has called the president a "spoiled brat" and had to fast-talk his way out of a suggestion that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should move quickly to wrap up his investigation of Clinton.

    More recently, when an interviewer asked him if he believed homosexuality was a sin, he replied that it was and then went on to compare it to his own father's alcoholism and other afflictions. Later, Lott told a colleague he felt "blindsided" by the question but did not explain why he chose to answer in such provocative detail.

    His remarks to a National Rifle Association convention about the civic virtues of gun possession reflected his longtime opposition to gun controls but seemed to go beyond his usual rhetoric. "Everyone is scared except the criminals," he said. "The way to change that is to give the criminals something to be afraid of. That something, in my opinion, is a well-armed public," he said.

    But it is his handling of the tobacco bill that appears to be most revealing about Lott as he heads into his third year as Senate majority leader with strong support among his colleagues but scant notice from the American public.

    From the start, he distanced himself from the substance of the legislation because his brother-in-law Richard Scruggs, as one of the lawyers who helped negotiate the original settlement with tobacco companies, had millions of dollars at stake in the outcome. But, as majority leader, he is the engineer-in-chief, responsible for moving the train even if he doesn't arrange the freight.

    It was Lott who chose McCain to put together a bill in the Commerce Committee, figuring both McCain and the committee had a bipartisan working relationship that could produce a viable bill. The bill that came out of McCain's committee by a huge vote was bigger and more ambitious than the settlement. Lott didn't like the results but continued to back McCain and, over opposition of some influential conservatives, brought the bill to the Senate floor.

    "He knew it would come up one way or the other. He knew either he controlled the situation or someone else would," said Craig. Even though he did not like the bill, he didn't want to be criticized for obstructing it, added Coats. And he figured an acceptable bill might be written in a House-Senate conference, although House Republicans, nervous about retaining their narrow majority in the fall elections, eventually weighed in on the side of a quick death in the Senate for anything more than a minimalist bill.

    "I'm sure he wanted a bill, there's no doubt in my mind," McCain said recently about Lott. But then the tobacco industry launched an eight-week, $40 million advertising campaign against the measure and "some of the most talented people in the Senate began to work against it," McCain said. "As public opinion turned, support eroded" and it became impossible to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and force a vote, he added.

    Craig kept a Republican head count: 31 or 32 of the 55 GOP senators opposed the bill or leaned against it when it came to the floor -- a number that grew to nearly 40 by the time the bill died. The opposition solidified after a survey by GOP pollster Linda DiVall suggested, in the wake of the ads, that the bill was not all that popular and that the political costs of opposing it were not all that great.

    But Lott kept trying to keep the bill afloat, according to Coats. "A lot of us were telling him this is going nowhere, pull the bill. But he waited a week and then another week -- right up to the day of the caucus" where he finally decided to force the procedural votes that killed it.

    Could he have done more to produce a bill that could pass? Did he make strategic errors in judgment -- or refuse to dip deep enough into his own political capital to force something that might pass -- and thereby contribute to the bill's demise? Not surprisingly, his colleagues disagree, largely along party lines, and the evidence points in both directions.

    Republicans say Lott was fighting fierce headwinds before he even started because, in contrast to the balanced-budget deal, no consensus had developed on highly controversial issues involved in the tobacco debate, including a big cigarette tax increase, spending for health and other social programs, liability protections for tobacco companies and caps on lawyers' fees from anti-smoking lawsuits.

    "The budget deal took three years and a consensus had developed in the country, as well as Congress, about what should be done," said Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a Lott friend, conservative and early backer of the tobacco bill. "Tobacco was something that just exploded on the scene fairly recently, and a consensus was not there."

    Lott might have gotten a bill along the lines of a proposed settlement worked out earlier between the industry and state attorneys general, some lawmakers said, if both parties had not piled on in pursuit of their own pet projects, such as the GOP's insistence on a tax cut for married couples and Democrats' demand for child care funds. "We were just all over the place," said Coats.

    Many Democrats point the finger straight at Lott, however, suggesting that Dole could have found a way to pass the bill.

    "It's a leadership failure, clearly," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who headed a Democratic task force on tobacco. "Part of the responsibility of leadership is taking an issue and resolving it. There was no resolution here. Any time you have a significant leadership failure like this, it hurts the leader and it hurts his party."

    Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who also was deeply involved in the fight, declined to discuss Lott's role in the past but said it was up to him whether a bill can be resurrected. "The fate of the legislation is in Sen. Lott's hands," he said. The bill is only two votes short of a filibuster-proof majority and "I have no question but that Trent Lott could produce that."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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