By MARGARET TALEV
May 12, 2005
In December 2002, Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee surgeon with an eye on the 2008 presidency, wasted no time gathering up support to replace fellow conservative Trent Lott as Republican leader of the Senate. Lott, a political veteran from Mississippi, had gotten himself in trouble with civil-rights leaders and others by exuberantly praising colleague Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, at Thurmond's 100th birthday party. Frist saw his opportunity and made his move.
Now, Republican leader Frist is facing a defining moment. He is under pressure by the White House and conservative groups to pull together the votes in his own party to change the Senate rules, preventing Democrats from filibustering Bush's nominees they have characterized as radical or activist.
Lott, now chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, has made himself a conspicuous player in the struggle. He is credited with giving the proposed rule change its nickname, the "nuclear option," although he now follows the party line of calling it the "constitutional option." But he's also working with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., to see whether they can put together a bipartisan coalition that can agree on a deal that would head off the nuclear option. As he does, his motivations are becoming popular fodder for speculation across the political spectrum:
Is Lott hoping for a compromise to preserve the deliberative tradition of the Senate? Or going through the motions of a futile negotiation to make the GOP look more sympathetic to the public when the majority party moves ahead with its inevitable power play?
Is he working to help Frist, as both men publicly insist, and in doing so positioning himself as a gracious, indispensable party leader?
Or in a delicious moment of political payback, has Lott maneuvered Frist into a corner with the implicit threat of an end-run deal that could hurt Frist's standing with the party's base in a presidential bid, thereby forcing Frist to attempt the nuclear option before he's ready?
Frist, asked this week whether he trusted Lott and thought his negotiations were helpful, said, "Yes, very helpful."
Lott, through his staff, declined to be interviewed for this story. His communications director, Susan Irby, called criticism of his motives "absurd" and said what happened between her boss and Frist more than two years ago "is not an issue."
"Senator Lott is in contact with Senator Frist," Irby said of the negotiations with Democrats. "This is not a rogue operation. He's working with the Republican leadership."
But some conservative advocates say that by holding out any prospect for a compromise, Lott could be gumming things up. They are concerned that if the nuclear option isn't exercised, Democrats will be able to use the filibuster to try to water down conservative representation on the Supreme Court should Chief Justice William Rehnquist retire this year.
"We don't appreciate it," Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said of Lott's efforts.
"The No. 1 thing at play in the Senate is always ego," Lessner said. "Is this some sort of attempt at payback for his demise, and Frist's perceived role in that? Or to put a thumb in the eye of the White House for not backing him up? I don't know if that's what's at play. I suggest it's because he's always been to this point steadfast in his assertion that nominees deserve an up-or-down vote. Why he'd go off the reservation in something as harebrained as this is inexplicable."
Facing such criticism, Lott's office this week issued a release saying he "has not changed his contention that all judicial nominees should have an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor."
On the other end of the filibuster fight, Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, a liberal group campaigning against the nuclear option, snorted with delight when asked what he made of Lott's involvement.
"I think Trent Lott has played a mischievous role," Neas said. "He promoted it (the nuclear option), got the right excited about it, got Frist all worked up, backed him into a corner, and now it's a lose-lose."
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