Last October, as Congress was scrambling to complete work on a series of last-minute spending bills that had been deadlocked all year, four members of the House of Representatives made a pilgrimage across the Capitol to see Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. With President Clinton crippled by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's inquiry and the prospect of impeachment, they argued, the moment was right for another Republican confrontation with the White House over the budget, even if that meant shutting down the government again. But, as former Senator Alan Simpson tells the story, Lott—recalling the disastrous results of the 1995–96 government shutdown provoked by Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries—was having none of it. "Good God! What have you been smoking?" said Lott, according to Simpson. "That was about the stupidest thing we ever did!" In the comedy of missteps, miscalculations, and overreaching that has marked the Republican Revolution since 1994, the GOP has Majority Leader Lott to thank for episodes of lucidity like that. Instead of shutting down the government just weeks before the midterm elections, Lott and Gingrich huddled with White House negotiators to craft an unwieldy, $600 billion omnibus spending bill funding a half a dozen agencies and a seemingly endless list of pork-laden special provisions. The budget deal did not endear Lott to many of his fellow conservatives; but by helping to avoid another budget train wreck he probably deserves credit for ensuring that the Republican setback in Novem ber did not turn out to be a rout.
But Lott was just doing his job. Though he has paid his dues on the right over a decades-long career in Washington, Lott is perhaps the quintessential example of a "money conservative," willing to set aside the right-wing catechism in favor of an agenda preferred by the constituency of lobbyists, political action committee directors, lawyers, and business interests that he has so carefully cultivated since coming to Washington. Always an excellent retail politician, whose glad-handing ways and careful tending to Mississ ippi's interests have made him senator-for-life from the Magnolia State, Lott has used his extensive network of former aides and fellow Mississippians to build a money machine that is unrivaled in the nation's capital.
Building bridges among the various species of congressional Republicans—from social conservatives and antitax fundamentalists to mainstream, probusiness GOP members and their more liberal Northeast cousins—Lott has cobbled together coalitions to produce legislation by making deals with shifting factions of the Senate, cultivating a working relationship with the White House, and meshing smoothly with the capital's network of influence peddlers. In early January, he sought to play a similar role regarding the political fate of the President. At other times, wielding his Senate majority like a club, he has battered to death key Democratic priorities such as the tobacco bill, campaign finance reform, and reform of the managed health care industry. Partly as a result, the political earthquake that shook the Republican Party after the November elections, which reduced Speaker Gingrich's office to rubble, barely rattled the teacups on the Senate side. Lott, 57, whose rapid rise to power paralleled that of Gingrich, managed to survive with his position, if not his prestige, intact.
At first blush it might seem that Gingrich and Lott could have both fallen victim to the GOP's circular firing squad that geared up in November. Like Gingrich, Lott was a member of a small but influential group of 1980s-era conservative Republican mavericks in the House, who chafed at the GOP's then-minority status and seized every opportunity to rock whatever boats drifted within reach. Both represented the southern, conservative wing of the party that dominates Congress today. And both regularly threw raw meat to the hard right on the three-G staples of southern Republican politics: God, guns, and gays. During the 1980s, when Gingrich—along with Jack Kemp, Vin Weber, and a handful of other hardy GOP partisans in the House—founded the Conservative Oppor tunity Society, House Repub lican Whip Lott was their mentor and protector. Back then, when Gingrich and his allies would cook up some outlandish scheme to promote their cause, Lott would gently nudge them toward some more productive, and achievable, goal. "He was sort of the realist in that group," says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), who has known Lott for three decades. "He kept them anchored to the ground."
But while Gingrich's flamboyant style and high-profile antics transformed him into the very symbol of the Republican Party, Lott is a virtual unknown outside Washington, and his anonymity made him a far less juicy target after the November 1998 elections. Indeed, a recent survey conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that two-thirds of Amer icans have either never heard of Lott or have no opinion about him. While Gingrich stalked about on the national stage, Lott—no less conservative than his House counterpart, but no ideologue—confined himself largely to the inside-Washington game, usually behind the scenes and out of the media spotlight. If Gingrich had a penchant for sweeping visions, sometimes startlingly provident and sometimes bordering on the hallucinatory, Lott hewed to a more steady course, mostly eschewing the Georgian's confrontational style.
Also protecting Lott was the nature of the Senate, whose structure—especially the need for a 60-vote majority to close off filibusters—rewards temperance rather than tempest. "He has to be a fiery moderate to lead the Senate," says Simpson. "He can't be anything else."
Yet while he wins plaudits for his stage-managing, consensus approach to his job as majority leader, some question his success. "I'd give him an A for effort," says former Repub lican Senator David Duren berger, who served with Lott and is now a Washington lobbyist. "But you should give Lott something less than an A for results." At times, Lott has seemed bereft of vision. If he has been able to pass legislation to keep the wheels of government turning while derailing important liberal priorities, nowhere has Lott put forward anything like an agenda for the GOP. To be sure, Lott's job wasn't made any easier by the fact that since the end of the Cold War the Republicans have had a devil of a time figuring out what, if anything, they stand for. Still, his inability to articulate a vision doesn't augur well for the ambitious Lott, who harbors a desire to run for president next year.
Yet, standing on the Senate floor before Senate business gets underway, Lott is the very picture of confidence. Impeccably dressed, flawlessly groomed and polished, Lott is wearing his trademark dark blue suit and a conservative, geometric-patterned tie. Holding an impromptu briefing for three dozen reporters in the waning days of the 105th Congress, Lott sails placidly above the controversies surrounding his ongoing talks with the White House over how to wrap up the big spending bill. "Well, it felt like the dam broke," he says, referring to a series of agreements that have just been reached. He leaps from banking reform to IMF funding to vocational education to money for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We're trying to work through what we call the underbrush now," he says. "This has been a long-distance run, and now we're in the sprint. I'm a happy optimist."
But as the 106th Congress gets down to work, Lott is facing a double whammy. Liberals are solidly arrayed against him, and the true-believing conservative right has decided that he cannot be their standard-bearer.
For two years, conservatives have been grumbling at Lott over his refusal to press harder on their issues—from partial-birth abortion to tax cuts—and over his support for the Chemical Weapons Convention and funding for the International Mon etary Fund. To the folks at the National Review, who blasted Lott in an article entitled "Dole Redux," as well as the members of the ACU, Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Found ation, and Focus on the Family, Lott is simply a disappointment.
Yet the last straw was the end-of-session budget bill that closed out the 105th Congress. Lott and Gingrich decided to strike a deal that gave the White House virtually everything it wanted. "Over at the White House, they've started referring to Lott and Gingrich as 'the cavemen,' because they caved in on everything," says a spokesman for the ACU. "We don't see much difference between Lott and Senator Dole." David Keene, the ACU chairman, recalls a prophetic breakfast that he and Lyn Nofziger, the former aide to Ronald Reagan, had with Dole soon after Lott took over as majority leader. "Give him a year up there and people will say I was a right-winger," Dole said, according to Keene, who adds, "A few months later Nofziger sent Dole a note, saying, 'What do you mean a year?'"
"I don't understand what he was trying to accomplish," says Weyrich, who had a well-publicized falling out with Lott over the chemical weapons treaty. "I talked to him. I talked to his staff. And no one really knows why he is accommodating Clinton." The conservative Citizens Against Government Waste gave Lott an Oinker Award for pork-driven politics. And, at the close of this year's session, even Gingrich admonished Lott for refusing to force a Senate vote on the $80 billion, House-passed tax cut. Lott "should have found a way to muscle it through the Senate," said Gingrich. "The Senate blinked."
Leader of the PAC
That certainly wasn't how it started when Lott began his ambitious charge into the ranks of the Senate leadership. First elected to the Senate in 1988, Lott bided his time until 1994, when, in the wake of the GOP takeover, he challenged Alan Simpson of Wyoming for the number two position as Senate Republican whip. It was a hard-fought contest, made all the more bitter by the fact that many Senate barons resented the upstart Lott's impudence in going after a post many thought was owed to Simpson. And a bit of presidential politicking was involved as well: Dole was behind Simpson, while Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, the armadillo-like conservative who was planning to battle Dole for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, backed Lott. In the end, Lott won by a single vote, 27–26, boosted by the votes of many of the 11 members of the 1994 freshman class and by Lott's friends from his days in the House of Representatives who had graduated to the Senate since the Reagan years. Lott's upset victory was widely viewed as signaling the ascendancy of those in the upper chamber who wanted a more confrontational (and more politically conservative) approach.
Two years later, when Dole left the Senate in June 1996, Lott's rise to majority leader was virtually assured, and he handily defeated fellow Mississippian Thad Cochran. For the chattering classes, the Lott-Gingrich tandem running Congress was seen as completing the triumph of southern ultraconservatism. Many liberals feared that Lott and Gingrich would revert to a take-no-prisoners assault on Big Government that would shake the foundations of the republic.
But rather than align himself with the conservative faction of the Republican caucus that elected him over Simpson and Cochran, in the second half of 1996 Lott worked closely with the White House, breaking the logjam that had stalled a host of legislative actions and pushing through laws including the controversial welfare reform bill, the minimum-wage increase, and a health care reform measure. By some accounts, Lott's ability to move crucial legislation through Congress and onto the President's desk in the months before the 1996 election allowed the GOP's congressional candidates to salvage some credibility and thus maintain the party's majority in Congress even as Dole went down to a landslide defeat.
And all along, when he really needed it, Lott had an ace in the hole: Dick Morris. The principles-free consultant, who had signed on in 1994 to advise President Clinton, was also a longtime advisor to Lott and had helped run his campaigns in 1988 and 1994. For two years, Morris served as a confidential go-between for Lott and Clinton. In Behind the Oval Office, his kiss-and-tell memoir, Morris describes Lott as "a politician first and a conservative second, [who] sees ideology as a guideline, not as a straitjacket." To Morris, Lott described Gingrich's rebellious freshmen as "ayatollahs," and, using Morris as conduit, coordinated legislative wheeling and dealing with the White House, including over the budget agreement that was hammered out in the midst of the presidential contest, just one year after the 1995 government shutdown.
But Lott's Dole-like ability to compromise should not have surprised anyone—neither his conservative allies nor his liberal opponents. For since the very start of his career, he has been an opportunist—and one who learned early on the importance of money in politics.
Follow the Money
When Lott decided in 1972 to run for the House—along with another Republican pioneer, Thad Cochran, now Lott's Mississippi colleague in the Senate—it was the very dawn of the GOP's Southern Strategy, and the South's current power in political Washington seemed light-years away. For Republicans, the South, and especially Mississippi, was terra incognita. "Cochran and Lott broke the mold," says Marty Wiseman of the Stennis Institute of Government in Jackson. "I think he should be given a lot of credit for proving that you could be successful running as a Republican. Even though it was beginning to happen across the South, [Lott and Cochran] were the ones who brought it to Mississippi."
Lott was born in Grenada County, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a shipyard pipe fitter. A graduate of Ole Miss—where he also received his law degree and, like Cochran, was a cheerleader—with a law practice in Pascagoula, Lott first had to shed his protective coloration as a Democrat. From 1968 to 1972, Lott worked in Washington as administrative assistant to conservative Representative William M. Colmer, a segregationist Democrat from Mississippi's Fifth District along the Gulf Coast, including Biloxi, Gulfport, and Lott's hometown of Pascagoula. But when Colmer decided to retire, the fledgling Republican Party saw Lott as the perfect candidate to capture the seat, and Lott quickly switched parties. "In 1972, in Mississippi, becoming a Republican was a pretty courageous thing to do," says Mike Retzer, chairman of the Mississippi GOP.
It didn't take much for Lott to make the shift. "We were recruiting," says Clark Reed, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party from 1966 to 1976, and one of a handful of Republicans who built the party from the ground up in those years. "He told me that he just wanted to see some support." At that time, support—financial and otherwise—for the Repub lican Party came primarily from the oil and gas industry. Says Billy Mounger, a businessman and longtime state Republican activist who served as Lott's finance chairman during his Senate races in 1988 and 1994, "The Mississippi Republican Party was substantially built on money from the oil and gas business." But Lott, working with Cochran, worked tirelessly to broaden the party's base to other industries, most of which were solidly lined up behind the yellow-dog Democratic establishment. "The business people in this state, well, we had to drag them into the Republican Party kicking and screaming," says Mounger.
But Lott worked hard to corral Mississippi's business community into the GOP, and it worked. "We've probably pretty well turned them," says Mounger. ("He has coopted virtually the entire membership of the Chamber of Commerce in the state," agrees Rickey Cole, the spokesman for the Mississippi Democratic Party.) Over the years Lott has built up an unassailable network of political donors that gives him a virtual lock on his seat. Lott's tenure is made even more secure by the fact that in Mississippi, incumbents rarely lose; the last time a congressional incumbent was ousted by a challenger was in 1964.
Lott, who once called the current state of campaign financing "the American way," has constructed a county-by-county web of fundraising task forces in Mississippi, each with its own quota, and each of which organizes big-donor events for Lott. "I picked up $50,000 at my house for him," says Mounger. And, several times a year, Lott organizes a fundraising gala; early in 1998, Jack Kemp was the featured speaker at a $250-per-person reception in Jackson that raised $60,000, followed by a $1,000-a-plate dinner that pulled in another $50,000. All in all, Lott's Mississippi network has paid off handsomely; in 1994, the last time Lott ran for re-election, he raked in 76 percent of his large ($200-plus) individual contributions from within Mississippi, for a total of $976,000.
In Washington, he has used the same technique, only writ large. Though Lott's network ranges far and wide into the world of corporate PACs, it is based on Mississippi friends and former staffers who people the law firms, trade associations, and lobby shops of the capital. "We have a loose group of people that we work with," says someone closely involved with Lott's fundraising operation. "The senator has seen many staff members come and go over the years, and they're all over town. That starts it." A handful of key lobbying firms are particularly close to Lott, including Barbour, Griffith & Rogers; Boland & Madigan; and Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey.
According to one of Lott's fundraisers, the Barbour firm is especially central to Lott's money chase, especially for the majority leader's so-called "Leadership PAC," the New Republican Majority Fund. Leadership PACs are becoming more and more common as tools for wielding political power and advancing personal agendas, as well as for financing bids for national office. And Lott's is no exception. Though it has been around since the late 1980s, it was largely moribund until Lott made his bid for Republican whip in 1994. During the 1993–94 election cycle, the New Republican Majority Fund had only $550 in cash on hand. But in the following cycle, Lott's PAC pulled in $1.6 million, and by 1997–98 the PAC had raised another $5.9 million, making it the largest leadership PAC in Congress. Last April, 1,150 people paid $1,000 each to attend a dinner held at the Washington Hyatt Regency to celebrate Lott's twenty-fifth year in Congress, fattening Lott's PAC by more than $1 million. The dinner was organized by a host committee of several dozen lobbyists, led by Brenda Larsen Becker of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association and Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
But it is the principals and clients of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers who stand out as contributors to and organizers for Lott's PAC. Key principals there include Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Republican who formerly chaired the Republican National Committee, and who very nearly ran against Lott for the 1988 Republican Senate nomination, and Lanny Griffith, a Mississippian who has known Lott for decades. Another player at the firm is James Johnson, who has known Lott since helping him to run (unsuccessfully) for student body president at the University of Mississippi, and who until recently served as executive director of Lott's PAC. Virtually every client of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers made a donation to the PAC, including at least nine who forked over $10,000 each: the American Financial Services Association, BellSouth, the Edison Electric Institute, FedEx, Glaxo Wellcome, Massachusetts Mutual Life, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, and U.S. Tobacco—along with many others who gave lesser amounts. Altogether, the Barbour, Griffith & Rogers network supplied more than $160,000 to Lott's PAC.
Naturally, there is no shortage of links between Lott's contributors and issues on which the majority leader takes a position. A Wall Street Journal survey of 144 big ($5,000-plus) donors to Lott's New Republican Majority Fund in the mid-1990s found that "four out of five . . . had identifiable stakes in specific programs and policies pending before the government," from securities reform to shipping to telecommunications. More specifically, the Journal noted that Lott had "shepherded an amendment giving LDDS WorldCom, a long-distance service based in Jackson, Mississippi, a competitive edge over major carriers." Not surprisingly, according to the National Journal, Lott's PAC benefited from a $100,000 fundraiser held at the New York home of billionaire John Kluge, then-chairman of WorldCom, whose PAC gave Lott $6,000 (along with another $5,000 from Kluge himself). Both kicked in $5,000 more in 1997.
Sometimes Lott's willingness to do favors for his corporate backers attracts unwanted attention. During the debate last year over product liability reform legislation, Lott quietly penciled in an amendment to the bill that would have given special protection to health care products manufactured by the Baxter Healthcare Corporation, which has a large facility in Mississippi and whose PAC has been one of Lott's regular contributors. So egregious was that intervention by Lott on behalf of one corporation's special interest—one repre sented, incidentally, by the Black, Kelly firm that is part of Lott's inner circle—that it made front-page news when it was exposed by the consumer group Public Citizen. Again, in October, at the very end of the 1998 legislative session, Lott quietly tried to insert a provision in the bloated, omnibus appropriations package that would have made it easier for car dealers to sell potentially unsafe, refurbished wrecked cars to unknowing consumers. That provision was heavily backed by car dealers and insurance companies who have lined up to support Lott financially, including $5,000 from Sherry Sharp, wife of Richard Sharp, chairman of Circuit City Stores Inc., parent company of the giant discount auto dealer CarMax.
But all of his favors for contributors pale when compared to what was prob ably the single most important act of Lott's tenure as majority leader during the 1997–98 session: his killing of the tobacco control legislation last June.
It was a dramatic moment. A bill that would have imposed a $516 billion tax on cigarettes, at $1.10 per pack, codifying the Food and Drug Administration's ability to regulate tobacco and imposing tough additional penalties on the industry if the measure failed to reduce youth smoking, had been on the Senate floor for four weeks, an almost unheard-of length of time. Yet on June 17, 1998, Lott proposed a measure that ended debate and killed the bill.
That turn of events was ironic because, 18 months earlier, Lott himself had actually brokered the crucial connection that eventually led to the settlement between the tobacco industry and its legal and public-health opponents. The industry, reeling from state-filed liability lawsuits, cases brought by smokers, and an important class-action case in New Orleans, was ready to deal. Ground zero in the anti-tobacco wars was Mississippi, where Attorney General Mike Moore and Richard Scruggs, a trial lawyer who had worked with Moore to develop Mississippi's case, were leading a multistate wave of lawsuits against cigarette makers to recover billions of dollars spent on Medicaid payments to treat smokers suffering from tobacco-related diseases. Scruggs, as it happens, is Lott's brother-in-law. And, early in 1996, as recounted in detail in The People Vs. Big Tobacco, Lott and Scruggs discussed how to work out a settlement between the industry and its critics.
Lott put Scruggs in touch with two key Repub licans, Tommy Anderson and John Sears, the former aide to Ronald Reagan. Lott was particularly close to Anderson, who had served as Lott's chief of staff for 17 years; in 1989, Lott had handpicked Anderson to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress in Mississippi's Fifth District, where Lott got his own political start. Then Lott called Steve Goldstone, R. J. Reynolds's CEO, and asked him to meet with Anderson and Sears, and the talks were underway. Later that year, Lott, Scruggs, Anderson, and Sears drafted the first version of an omnibus tobacco bill, proposing a payment of $150 billion over 15 years—but that bill, full of industry-friendly loopholes, went nowhere.
At this point it is fair to ask: What, exactly, was motivating Senator Lott? His commitment to public health? His desire to see the tobacco industry called to account for misleading its customers? More likely, given the web of tobacco influence that has surrounded him, Lott was working, even then, on behalf of one of his—and his party's—leading financial backers. And, though Lott has not given a detailed account of his role in the tobacco wars, and declined to be interviewed for this article, it seems likely that he orchestrated his every action leading up to June 17 with the tobacco industry's interests in mind.
Lott's apparent addiction to tobacco money is plain. According to a survey by Public Citizen, between 1993 and 1997 Lott's personal campaign PAC pocketed $25,250 in contributions from the Tobacco Institute and cigarette manufacturers. In addition, Lott's New Republican Majority Fund is regularly supplied with cash by Philip Morris, RJR, Brown & Williamson, and U.S. Tobacco ($40,000 in 1997–98 alone). Further, according to the Legal Times, Lott's leadership PAC pulled $30,000 from Philip Morris, RJR, and UST into a low-profile "soft money" account that Lott established in the state of Virginia, part of an unusual network of nonfederal (and therefore unregulated by the Federal Election Com mission) accounts, using a loophole in FEC rules. Not only that, but records show that Lott was a frequent flyer on Air Tobacco, with his two PACs reimbursing RJR, UST, B&W, and Philip Morris for at least $33,155 in air travel expenses during 1997–98.
The network of lobbyists surrounding Lott is also heavily involved in promoting the tobacco industry's cause. Four firms that represent Philip Morris in Washington, for instance, are particularly close to Lott: Barbour, Griffith & Rogers; Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell; Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey; and Bergner, Bockorny, Clough & Brain. During 1998, Baker, Donelson—which houses former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker—was paid $1.4 million by the industry for lobbying, most of which was aimed at blocking the bill that Lott eventually shut down. Lott is especially close to Baker, with whom he consults frequently, and who advised him during the battle over tobacco in the Senate, according to Congressional Quarterly. For its part, Barbour's firm was paid $860,000 in 1998 by the industry. John F. Scruggs, a principal at the Black, Kelly firm, was part of Lott's so-called "kitchen cabinet," until he left last year to take a job in the Washington office of Philip Morris.
When the tobacco deal got to Congress with strong White House pressure behind it, Lott used his relationship with Richard Scruggs, the Mississippi anti-tobacco lawyer, to recuse himself from dealing with the legislation. (Lott and Scruggs are quite close, and Lott affectionately described Scruggs as "my scuzzbucket, liberal, trial lawyer brother-in-law.") But Lott's recusal also served another purpose: it allowed the majority leader to play his cards close to his chest, keeping opponents off balance. And, at this point, it wasn't clear to anyone—including Lott and the industry—how much momentum the bill had. Since the conclusion of the historic tobacco accord in 1996, momentum was on the side of passage, and so Lott and other tobacco allies found it difficult to craft a strategy that could slow it down. And, of course, at the beginning at least, the industry itself favored a deal.
Lott initially steered the bill to Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican and number two GOP leader in the Senate, who stalled it. Apparently fearing that Nickles—who strongly opposed the bill—would cause a political problem for the GOP, Lott then decided to hand the bill over to the Senate Commerce Com mittee, chaired by Arizona's John McCain. Tobacco critics were worried, because the cautious and conservative Commerce Committee was notoriously friendly to tobacco. But the bill that emerged from McCain's committee, on a 19 to 1 vote—though weaker than some activists wanted—was still a powerful indictment of the industry, and it included the $1.10-per-pack tax.
Then two things happened. As the bill moved to the Senate floor in late May, pressures began building to make it even stronger. And at the same time, tobacco industry executives—led by RJR's Goldstone—began to turn against the bill, with Lott and Gingrich apparently in tow. In the Senate, Lott dropped his neutral stance, opposing an ultimately successful effort to strip the industry of protection from future liability lawsuits. And he tried to kill an amendment that strengthened the so-called "look-back" provisions, imposing future penalties on the industry if the bill did not succeed in reaching its goal of reducing teen smoking.
With the Democrats daily proposing motions for a cloture vote that would shut off a Republican filibuster, the bill lingered on the Senate floor week after week, as Lott described the bill as "teetering" and labeled it a "D.C. money grab." Con servative GOP opponents of the bill, like Gramm and Paul Coverdell, loaded it down with unrelated provisions concerning tax cuts and the War on Drugs, apparently in the hope that such poison pills would cause some Democrats to withdraw support—but the tactic failed. "The Democrats didn't take the bait," says Joan Mulhern, an anti-tobacco lobbyist for Public Citizen's Congress Watch. "When he couldn't successfully get the Demo crats to fall into the trap, that's when Lott decided to pull the bill."
Until the very last moment, McCain was hoping that Lott would cut the Gordian Knot. And he even proposed to end the filibuster himself and allow the bill, which had majority support in the Senate, to pass. "The cloture vote that will pass is the motion that Trent Lott proposes," said McCain, in early June, still hoping for the rescue that never came. Instead, Lott declared, "This bill, that started out as well intentioned, has grown like Topsy." On June 16, he called a meeting of the Republican Senate caucus, which revealed divisions over how to proceed—and the next day, ending the fiasco, Lott pulled the bill. Lott put the squeeze on wavering Republicans, telling them that the tobacco vote was "personal," ensuring that fence-sitters like Florida's Connie Mack, Missouri's Kit Bond, and Ohio's Mike DeWine stayed on the reservation, according to Mulhern. Lott prevailed, 57–42, three votes short of the 60 needed to end debate. A New York Times editorial, "Death of the Tobacco Bill," accused Lott of "chicanery."
But at the root of it all was money. During 1997–98, the tobacco industry funneled more than $3.8 million in soft money to the Republican Party, including $50,000 from the Tobacco Institute on June 16, the very eve of the bill's demise. Lott, who was counting on tobacco money to help the GOP make gains in the Senate in November, joined with Kentucky's Mitch McConnell to put the bill out of its misery. At the June 16 meeting of the Republican senators, however, McConnell reportedly sought to assure his colleagues worried about a pro-tobacco stand that the industry would continue to run a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz telling voters that the tobacco bill was a liberal, tax-and-spend nightmare, providing cover for senators up for re-election in 1998.
No wonder, then, that two months later Lott and McConnell teamed up once again to kill another of McCain's pet projects, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which would have, among other things, put an end to the flow of soft money into the coffers of the political parties.
But Can He Lead?
In killing the tobacco and campaign finance reform legislation, Lott showed that he can be decisive, take strong action, and weather the inevitable criticism that follows. But his performance as majority leader raises the question of just what kind of leader he really is.
In early 1997, at the start of the last Congress, Lott had a chance to grab the brass ring—and ignored it. For all the world, Lott was then the leader of the Republican Party, by default if nothing else. The Dole campaign was a pile of wreckage, and Gingrich—licking his wounds from a bruising battle over campaign finance violations for which he was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for ethics violations—had receded into the background. But faced with that responsibility, Lott blinked, failing to put forward even the most rudimentary vision or agenda for where the Republican Congress needed to go.
Lott failed to seize the mantle that was his at the start of the 105th Congress, former Senator Durenberger says, charitably.
"He had it, but I don't know that he took it. In the long run, he may have looked at it and said, 'Now is not the time,'" says Durenberger. Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, says that Lott got weighed down by the difficulty of managing the Senate. "There was a lot of feeling that he would become the effective leader of the Republican Party," says Mann. "But it never happened." That fact was never more starkly on display than in January 1998, when, following a masterful State of the Union address by President Clinton, Lott gave a disjointed and almost pitiful reply, full of shopworn GOP clichés.
Now, in 1999, Lott once again finds himself in position to emerge as the undisputed leader of the Republican Party and even as a leading presidential contender for 2000. Despite occasional verbal clashes, Lott and Clinton can work together, barring insurmountable bitterness growing out of a Senate impeachment trial. Conceivably, a centrist troika might emerge among Lott, Clinton, and the untested new speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, that could forge a center-right approach to issues from next year's budget to more cosmic "fixes" for Medicare and Social Security, both of which are on the table in 1999.
For the next two years, the United States will be governed in part by two men who hail from small, neighboring southern states. Down there, it's often hard to tell Democrats from Republicans, whatever party label they wear. And Clinton and Lott, in particular, have more in common than just Dick Morris. Both are driven and ambitious, willing to sacrifice principle for expedient political compromise, and both are time-tested conciliators who spent their youths mediating between warring parents. "In both upbringing and life experience, there are precious few people who have more in common than the President and Senator Lott," says Rickey Cole, one of two Democratic National Committee members from Mississippi and spokesman for the state Democratic Party, who has watched Lott for years. "You could put both of 'em in a sack and shake it up, and it wouldn't matter which one came out first. Just call one the Republican and the other one the Democrat."
For Lott, 1999 will be a crucial test of his mettle, especially if later this year he decides to make a run for the presidency—something he continues to hint at, most recently in a leak to U.S. News & World Report. Cole, for one, is sure he wants to run. "Most of us in Mississippi are betting on him to run in 2000," says Cole. "And when he announces, it'll be poll-tested to death. His speech will resound like a Baptist sermon. It'll have three good points, and he'll go everywhere and work it to death. He may not have the vision, but he sure has got the desire."
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