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Analysis: Lott's Plan Looks to 2000

Trent Lott, AP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. (AP)

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  • By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 1, 1999; Page A20

    In floating a trial balloon aimed at bringing a swift conclusion to impeachment proceedings, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has embarked on a risky political path that has already provoked the Republican right.

    Lott is gambling that it is worth angering hard-line House members, his party's conservative wing and Republican activists in his home state in order to protect vulnerable GOP senators facing tough reelection fights in 2000, according to both Republicans and Democrats involved in the process.

    Critics of Lott's still tentative decision said it would allow President Clinton to avoid a lengthy Senate trial and the embarrassment of direct testimony by Monica S. Lewinsky and others, preventing an opportunity to make a more convincing case to the public of Clinton's culpability and the legitimacy of removing him from office.

    Lott remained in seclusion from the press and his aides had little to say about the rationale of his impeachment strategy. Others, however, were not so reticent.

    "This is very discouraging," said Clark Reed, a driving force in building the Mississippi GOP over the past 3 decades and a close associate of Lott's. "Frankly, I'm torn my own self as to which way to raise hell." Connie Cochran, executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party, said many voters have called headquarters to complain that because of Lott there may be no full-scale examination of the charges against Clinton.

    Gary Bauer, head of the conservative Family Research Council, simultaneously criticized Lott while giving an indirect boost to his own prospective GOP presidential bid: "I've been concerned overall about a lack of leadership in the party for some time now. I think the vacuum left by Ronald Reagan has never been filled both in commitment to ideas and in courage in pushing against the tide."

    In Lott's political calculus, however, the irritation of Bauer and Reed are far outweighed by the need to protect the reelection prospects of such GOP senators as Rod Grams (Minn.), John D. Ashcroft (Mo.), Rick Santorum (Pa.), Spencer Abraham (Mich.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.). Partisans on both sides of the aisle pointed out that these and a number of other Republican senators up in 2000 face reelection in states where Democratic challengers could capitalize on impeachment proceedings.

    "He is acting in behalf of his most immediate constituency, his 55 Republican senators. He is acting as leader of his own party," a senior Democratic Senate aide said. In the states likely to have close races for GOP incumbents, "this [impeachment] is not a popular position with general election voters."

    The aide contended that conservatives and strong Republican partisans "can't hold a grudge when at the end of the day you have some vote that a member will be accountable for."

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), incoming chairman of the Rules Committee, defended Lott. "He views his role here as majority leader of the whole Senate," McConnell said. "Almost no one is viewing this as a partisan exercise."

    In fact, one Senate source close to the negotiations over impeachment proceedings contended that one of Lott's goals is to prevent a repetition of the kind of battle that turned impeachment into a partisan war in the House: "He looked back on the House and said, 'There but for the grace of God go we.' We have other business to conduct and the Senate is a very personal place. If a bitter partisan divide is implanted in the Senate, it's very tough to dislodge and no business can get done."

    Not all impeachment hawks were critical of Lott. GOP pollster Bill McInturff said: "It's simple. In the Senate, it takes a two-thirds vote. If there is never going to be a two-thirds vote, then there is a calculation just how long do you want to pursue [a trial to remove Clinton from office]. If it was just a majority vote in the Senate, we would be having a very different conversation."

    When Lott became majority leader in March 1996, he signaled the start of a sober, non-confrontational period. "In '95, we were new, we were exuberant, we were excited, maybe a little out of control," he said. "Now, everything is different. ... We are not going to look for a reason to fight. We're going to look for a way to get things done."

    This kind of thinking has continued, influencing his current posture on the impeachment proceedings in the view of a number of people. One Democrat noted, "Lott has been the one who had to deal with the catastrophes wrought by the House, beginning with the government shutdowns. His solution was to make deals and pass legislation."

    In this assessment, Lott's emphasis on passing legislation in 1996 to counter the image of the GOP generated by the 1995-96 government shutdowns was crucial to Republican success in holding their House majority.

    A Republican familiar with Lott's thinking said, "He is not inclined to blow up the place over this [impeachment]. It's not in the Senate's interest or in the party's interest to do that."

    For Lott, the crucial political test will be working out the details of an impeachment proceedings strategy that can win majority support from the Republican caucus. Few believe he would try to impose rules governing the trial with just a minority of Republicans allied with the 45 Democrats. But a number of sources yesterday noted that prospects for getting a majority of GOP senators to agree to his plan look reasonably good. They pointed out that only a small number of senators have staked out hard-line positions demanding a full scale trial, suggesting that Lott may not encounter intractable opposition.

    Staff writers Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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