WASHINGTON—Four years after his racially incendiary remarks forced him to step down as Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi was born again politically on Wednesday, winning the second-ranking post of Republican whip.
As expected, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was chosen unanimously for the top job of Senate minority leader, beginning in January.
The new Senate GOP leadership team represents a return to pragmatism. They're seasoned GOP parliamentarians who are expected to cross party lines and buck the White House more often than did retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who concentrated more on pleasing the president and the Republican Party base that's key to his presidential hopes for 2008.
McConnell and Lott are Senate traditionalists, and while both are conservative partisans, they also know how to cut deals to get things done.
"I can work with Mitch," said the next Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., who praised McConnell's understanding of how the Senate operates. Reid's deputy, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, said dealing with McConnell would be a "double-edged sword" because as much as McConnell might see the benefits of cooperation, he also would be skilled at obstruction when he chose.
In an interview, Lott said it was "very likely" that Republicans would join Democrats in increasing the minimum wage if it could be packaged with incentives for businesses. "I have a pragmatist side to me and I'm also a populist. I have a blue-collar, working-class family background, and that feeling wells up in me sometimes."
The next big congressional leadership showdown comes Thursday. House of Representatives Democrats will select their No. 2 leader for the next Congress, when they'll be in the majority for the first time since 1994.
The contest pits the popular moderate Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland against Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who led Democrats in questioning the Iraq war over the past year and has the support of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But Murtha also has some ethics issues.
Murtha was a target in the federal Abscam probe of congressional corruption a quarter-century ago. He refused to take a bribe from undercover FBI agents, but a secret film of the exchange shows him suggesting that he might be open to a cash payoff later: "You know, we do business for awhile, maybe I'll be interested," Murtha said. He was never indicted.
Voters last week rejected Republican rule in Congress in part because of disgust with corruption scandals. If the first decision newly elected House Democrats make is to choose Murtha as their No. 2 leader, they risk tarnishing their image on ethics before they even take power.
In addition, Murtha has a reputation for playing pork-barrel politics as one of the House's key appropriators. Another reason voters rejected Republicans was because of their outrage at their soaring spending, especially on special "earmarks," or pork projects inserted into spending bills by appropriators such as Murtha as special favors for lawmakers in exchange for their support.
Elevating Murtha thus could undercut the credibility of Pelosi's vow to rid Capitol Hill of corruption. But Murtha is a loyal lieutenant to Pelosi, and she's said to have a grudge against Hoyer, who challenged her unsuccessfully for party whip in 2001.
On Wednesday, however, it was the Senate Republicans' secret-ballot elections that captivated Capitol Hill.
"We are unified in our desire to work with the Democrats across party lines to see what we can accomplish for the country," McConnell said, with his leadership team at his side. "But we will be a robust minority, a vigorous minority and hopefully a minority that is only in that condition for a couple of years."
McConnell has largely supported the president and corporate America and led a high-profile attempt to block campaign-finance limits, saying they infringed on free speech. He also crossed party leaders in blocking a ban on flag burning. He's married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
As for Lott, several Republicans said their party has benefited over the years from his brokering of bipartisan deals for a higher minimum wage, welfare reform, health insurance portability and tax cuts.
Lott edged out Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander for the whip's job by one vote, and GOP senators at the closed-door session said the Mississippian's eyes filled with tears upon his victory.
In an interview later, Lott said his return to leadership "takes on extra meaning for me because of how I exited it and what I went through last year. I lost my mother and I lost my house (to Hurricane Katrina). All of that just kind of welled up in that moment."
Lott was forced to step down as the Republicans' leader in 2002 after his remarks at a 100th birthday celebration for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who'd run for president in 1948 as a segregationist. Lott had said that "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if Thurmond had won.
Lott's subsequent apology and explanation that he'd meant to honor Thurmond's life accomplishments, not segregation, failed to save him.
With President Bush's backing, Frist, a heart surgeon with weaker political instincts and less experience than Lott, stepped in, but he's been roundly criticized for political miscalculations.
Lott, meanwhile, has worked behind the scenes to redeem himself with colleagues, and he drew bipartisan praise last year for advocating for Hurricane Katrina victims.
He'd planned to retire, but after Katrina, chose to seek re-election. "I worked very hard to show I can take a lick and keep on going, and I was not just going to go away and sulk and give up the ghost. I took my lumps and I licked my wounds, and I came back."
Reid called Lott's victory "a great comeback."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a swing vote on many issues, said of Lott, "Because of where we are today and because he did have those skills, we needed to take advantage of his capabilities and talents and skills and institutional knowledge."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Lott "is the most adept at getting legislation passed of anyone I've ever known, probably . . . I think most people think he paid a pretty heavy price for the mistake that he made. We all believe in redemption, thank God."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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