Lott and McConnell: United They Stand?
It was a double-date rife with political and legislative implications for the 110th Congress. The Senate's top Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.), went to dinner with their wives early this month at a posh downtown D.C. restaurant.
Ostensibly just some old-fashioned bonding, the dinner is described in some congressional quarters as an attempt to repair a damaged relationship. After Lott lost the Senate majority leader's job in 2002, McConnell quickly fell in line as the loyal whip to Lott's replacement, now-retired Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Lott confirmed that he went on the double-date with McConnell -- whose wife is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (meaning Patricia Lott was the only one of the four not to have her own security detail in tow). But the newly minted GOP whip demurred at the suggestion that the dinner was an effort at rapprochement between the former allies.
"We go back a long way. We had some things we needed to talk about," he said, comparing the outing to regular group dates among a handful of GOP senators in the mid-1990s.
Senate Republicans and their top aides are anxiously watching the McConnell-Lott relationship for signs of friction, with some concerned that a fractured leadership team could allow Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the new majority leader, to run rough-shod over Republicans. In a new world order that has Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bulldozing her agenda through the House, the Senate and its parliamentary dilatory tactics have become the last line of Republican defense -- other than the veto pen that President Bush has so far been reticent to use.
For now, Lott has publicly stated his fealty to McConnell, saying he will stick strictly to the Whip's role of being top vote counter in the chamber.
"It's important for the leader to be comfortable with the whip," Lott told Capitol Briefing. "I know what my job is."
But hard feelings may linger. Lott, who lost the leadership job in late 2002 after making racially insensitive remarks at a tribute for Sen. Strom Thurmond, was openly critical of his successor's handling of the job. While Lott's criticisms were often viewed as payback for Frist's perceived treachery, they were just as easily interpreted by McConnell as sharp jabs at his own leadership role, given that McConnell and Frist worked hand in hand on every major issue that came up in Frist's four-year reign.
McConnell, who had served as GOP whip since 2003, was always a sho0-in to replace Frist, who chose not to seek a third term last year. The whip contest, however, turned into a wide-open battle once it became clear that the most likely McConnell successor, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), was going down in flames in his own reelection fight.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) emerged as the only alternative. Enter Lott, who once roomed with Alexander in the late 1960s in a suburban Virginia group house when they were both congressional staffers. The only man to serve as GOP Whip in both the House and Senate, Lott began rounding up votes in late October to challenge Alexander in the post-election leadership contest.
McConnell never spoke out publicly on the race, but his top Senate allies aggressively worked in Alexander's corner, chief among them Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who has emerged as McConnell's tall, lanky version of Tom Hagan.
In the end, Lott pulled off a stunning victory, 25-24, flipping several votes in the last hours of the campaign. According to numerous sources, one of the most critical votes for Lott was Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who rebuked Lott in December 2002 by being the first Republican to publicly back Frist over Lott for leader.
Some GOP senators even cast their votes for Lott hoping for a leadership duo with creative tension. "Because Mitch knows he has to be at peak performance all the time," one GOP senator told Capitol Briefing, explaining his vote for Lott while requesting anonymity because of the critical nature of his comments directed at McConnell.
Ever since Lott's win, the leaders have made small gestures to show they can work together. Immediately following the leadership elections two months ago, handlers tried to orchestrate a photo opportunity in which they would walk out of the meeting side by side. Instead, Lott refused, according to a source present. "Mitch, this is your day, you go ahead," Lott told his leader, letting McConnell bask in the glow of photo flashes.
And when picking a spot for their dinner date, which came Jan. 5 after a daylong Republican retreat at the Library of Congress, McConnell deferred to Lott, sources said. [Tastes have clearly changed for Lott. In the 1990s the senatorial dinner-and-movie dates used to start at a California Pizza Kitchen in suburban Virginia; the recent dinner with the McConnells took place in a private room at 701, just off Pennsylvania Avenue.]
Lott rejects the notion that he can't work effectively with McConnell. His first go-round as Senate whip came in similar circumstances a dozen years ago when he beat -- also by one vote -- then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming), who was the best friend of the incoming Republican leader, former Sen. Bob Dole (Kansas). "I kept my mouth shut and did my job," Lott recalled of his relationship with Dole.
Once he took over for Dole, however, Lott endured a tense relationship with then-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who eschewed the whip title and instead called himself "assistant majority leader", a sign of Nickles's aspiration for Lott's job.
Republican aides today are already murmuring about staff-level battles between McConnell and Lott that could harken back to those of the Lott-Nickles days. But top advisers are quick to note that several of McConnell's senior staffers used to work for Lott, and some Lott aides once worked for McConnell.
Lott said he's instructed his staff to show proper deference to McConnell's aides, noting he rejected advice to set up a communications operation out of his leadership offices on the second floor of the Capitol, which are adorned with a sign announcing Lott has taken the old fashioned "Republican Whip" title as his own. Instead, McConnell is the only Senate GOP leader setting up a rapid-fire "communications center."
Lott, with a smile, also noted another reason why he rejected the need for having his own press operation: "I'll get myself in trouble on my own."
If so, the double-dating days of the McConnells and Lotts won't last very long.
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