Lott gains firm grip in climb to top of Hill Voters deal strong hand to GOP Senate leader

November 17, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Sen. Trent Lott surveys the post-election landscape, he can see that no other national political leader is better positioned than he.

President Clinton was, of course, re-elected. But his influence is limited because his Democratic Party failed to win a majority in either house of Congress. In the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich clung to his Republican majority, but its ranks have thinned. Gingrich is also under siege by an ethics inquiry that makes it all but impossible for him to continue as the leading Republican voice on Capitol Hill.

Bob Dole, needless to say, is gone.

That leaves Lott, Dole's successor as Senate majority leader, in the driver's seat. A hard-charging conservative who wears a cell phone on his belt, Lott presides over the largest, and perhaps the most conservative, Republican Senate majority elected since the 1920s. That entitles him to call most of the shots.

"He's the top Republican leader on the Hill now, really the leader of the political opposition," said David Mason, a congressional analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Senate Republicans picked up two seats in the elections, giving Lott a healthy edge of 55 to 45 over the Democrats. His majority could grow even larger after the elections in 1998.

What's more, like Lott, the nine new Republican senators are more strictly conservative than their predecessors and make the Senate perhaps more conservative now than the House. Thus, after two years of serving as a brake on hard-line House Republicans, Lott's Senate could lead the charge, even if he still lacks the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters.

Within hours after the election, the Mississippi Republican was holding a news conference in the elegant Capitol office he

inherited from Dole, sending signals to the White House about just how he plans to run things next year.

"I think that it gives us a certain amount of confidence that the people have given us not only our majority back but some increased numbers," Lott told reporters. "I think they are going to look to us to provide some leadership."

Hard-line charm

The former college cheerleader from Ole Miss, who at 55 still flashes a Pepsodent smile and seems to have retained every strand of his thick brown hair, makes an ideal Republican point man. He was in the vanguard of a new generation of Southern conservatives who now dominate his party on Capitol Hill, but he never became a target of the liberal bombardment that has rained on Gingrich.

Lott is just as tough as -- and maybe more conservative than -- Gingrich, but "he doesn't seem as threatening," a Republican Senate aide explained. He's personable, gregarious, almost syrupy when he wants to lay on the Southern charm.

"He can jab in that stiletto and cut your heart out before you know what's happening, because he's smiling all the while," said an aide to a Senate Democrat.

In his own party, Lott has been regarded as breathtakingly ambitious, particularly by the more senior Republicans he leapfrogged over to reach the top job. Many of them, though, are now retired.

Questions of tactics

The latest Washington parlor game is guessing how Lott will deploy his new powers. Will he continue as the conciliatory deal-maker he became last summer, when he took over as majority leader and worked with Clinton to quickly complete most of the major achievements of the last Congress -- especially welfare reform, health insurance reform and an increase in the minimum wage?

Or will Lott be inclined to take a tougher line with the president, to try to force Clinton to make good on the centrist promises he made in the campaign, such as balancing the budget while still providing targeted tax cuts and protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment?

The smart money seems to be on a combination of the two. After last winter's budget debacle resulted in two partial shutdowns of the government for which most voters seemed to blame the GOP, few Republicans are urging another take-it-or-leave-it approach.

But Lott is still irritated with Clinton for having portrayed the Republicans as budget-slashing extremists during the campaign even though, as the White House acknowledges, the two sides were close to a budget deal.

Lott may thus want to exact some political penance from the president.

And, in fact, he has already made clear that he wants to return to the regular order of government in which a president offers his budget proposals first.

Most crucially, the Senate leader is determined to force Clinton to explain how he would control the escalating costs of Medicare, after having demonized the Republicans for offering a Medicare proposal that the president called a threat to senior citizens.

"First of all, he's got to admit that his program is not even a fig leaf of the real problem," Lott said of Clinton at his news conference. "He's got to basically admit that he demagogued it. He's got to say something about the problems of Medicare. And then, we'll see."

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