WASHINGTON—For months, Sen. Trent Lott pulled a list of names from his pocket and told anyone who listened that he had the votes to trigger the "nuclear option"—the change in the Senate's rules that would ease the way for President Bush's judicial nominees.
At the same time, the Mississippi Republican worked quietly to avert it.
Lott wasn't among the 14 senators who signed the pact on Monday that forestalled a Senate showdown. Publicly, he was dismissive.
"Whenever that coalition needs to be picked apart," he said, "we'll pick it apart."
But senators involved in the talks say Lott was instrumental in pushing the Senate to the brink of a historic clash—and in pulling it back. It was a remarkable role for the former Senate leader whose career was nearly ruined by an ill-advised tribute to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond two-and-a-half years ago that made him sound nostalgic for the days of segregation.
In the end, by maneuvering behind the scenes, Lott displayed more flexibility than the man who replaced him at the helm of the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.—and he may have enhanced a political rehabilitation that could return him to the leadership ranks.
"He probably wanted everything," Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the leading Democrat in the negotiations, said of Lott's opposition to judicial filibusters. "But he's been a leader here, he's been through the wars and he didn't start off with that as the demand. ... If you've got all the votes, then you compromise because you choose to."
Or, as Lott's former chief of staff, David Hoppe, put it: "In a sense, he was a catalyst to keep the conversation going."
In the midst of sluggish negotiations led by Nelson and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to beat back the nuclear option effort, Lott slipped into McCain's suite of offices unnoticed by the gaggle of reporters waiting outside.
Some of the participants were caught by surprise. After all, Lott had coined the term "nuclear option" and just that day had been on the Senate floor with an uncompromising demand for confirmation votes on Bush's stalled nominees.
Lott examined a working draft of the deal. "It looks like you're on the way to getting something here," he told them, according to two senators, one Republican and one Democrat, who were in the room but asked not to be identified because they didn't want to anger Lott.
Lott confirmed his furtive visit when asked about it, but grinned first and said: "You didn't see me there." As for the negotiation that day, he said, "I wasn't in there trying to lead it or slow it down."
Instead, he gave the talks his blessing.
The deal stopped a Republican effort to do away with the filibuster—the parliamentary tactic of using extended debate to delay judicial confirmation votes indefinitely. Democrats had used the filibuster to block 10 of Bush's judicial nominees; Bush re-nominated seven this year. Under the last-minute agreement, only two of the judges would face filibusters and seven Democrats vowed to engage in future judicial filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances." The seven Republicans who signed on agreed they wouldn't vote to eliminate judicial filibusters.
Lott first described the idea of abolishing judicial filibusters as "nuclear" in March 2003.
But even as Lott pressured his party's leadership to embrace the nuclear option, he also reached out to Nelson, a moderate Democrat who frequently votes with Republicans. In March, Nelson said he and Lott discussed bypassing the party leaders and forming a small bipartisan coalition that could, in effect, thwart most filibusters and the nuclear option.
"Lott's view on this was, `If you can get 70 percent of a loaf, take 70 percent of a loaf,'" said Hoppe, Lott's former chief of staff.
But when the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported early this month that Lott and Nelson were close to reaching an agreement, the conservative community erupted. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused Lott of paying Bush back for engineering his ouster as majority leader. Others accused him of setting up and then undermining Frist for having replaced him.
"People were raising all kinds of questions about what his motives were and whether he had an agenda," Nelson said. "For the sake of the effort he felt that somebody else should participate."
Lott publicly backed off the deal. "I didn't want to be seen as getting in the way of the leadership with a compromise," he said.
McCain stepped in and picked up where Lott left off. Still, even as he publicly distanced himself from the talks, Lott stayed in touch, culminating with his visit to McCain's office on May 19.
"My attitude is always to try to do the right thing, no matter what it is or how hard it is," Lott said. "But if you can't get it done in your ultimately desired fashion, then get it done the best way you can."
Frist didn't have that kind of mobility. Conservative groups were pressuring him to seek a vote on the nuclear option, nothing less. Lott kept up the pressure, perfectly ready to vote for the nuclear option if no deal emerged.
"He tried to create a sense of compromise," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the seven Republicans who signed on to the deal, "and openly and then in the background tried to suggest that this would be good for all of us."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050303 SENATE FRIST, 20021213 LOTT bio
Need to map