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The Prickly Pragmatist

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TRENT LOTT, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER

The man with what Brookings Institution fellow Charles Jones calls "one of the least attractive jobs in the world right now" is Senate majority leader Trent Lott. His power, never formidable in an institution famous for its decentralization, is more splintered than ever, with a large liberal minority and a conservative caucus tired of acceding to the Clinton agenda. Does Lott have what it takes to get anything done?

That depends on which Lott shows up to lead. Will it be the bitter Republican partisan who last May got into a shouting match with Tom Daschle on the Senate floor--the minority leader accusing Lott of turning the Senate into a "dictatorship," and Lott, waving his arms in anger, saying he refused to be "threatened and intimidated"? Or will it be the conciliator who bucked his party's hard-liners during the impeachment crisis and quietly collaborated with Democrats to shorten the Senate trial?

In his 28 years in Congress, Lott has swung between these two personas, at times brash and battle hungry, at others cordial and accommodating. He has been blasted for having what one colleague called "foot-in-mouth disease." He publicly compared homosexuality to kleptomania and just last week, after Hillary Clinton's election, sniped that "maybe lightning will strike" before she can claim her seat. But others see the sunny, impeccably dressed man with the smooth basso voice who charms his colleagues by performing a capella with the Singing Senators quartet.

When he first won a seat as a Congressman from Mississippi at 31, Lott was more ideologue than pragmatist, joining up with Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp to push an agenda of deregulation and tax cuts. But as he rose through the leadership ranks, first in the House and then in the Senate, Lott mellowed, earning a reputation as a tough negotiator willing to make sacrifices in order to get things done. When he became majority leader in 1996, Lott reached out to moderate Democrats and the White House, efforts that led to the smooth passage of welfare reform and a minimum-wage increase.

But in the past few years he has earned the ire of some peers who fault him for failing to advance the conservative agenda while bringing home favors for his constituents. (Lott is such a renowned pork barreler that employees at Raytheon Co. in Forest, Miss., once serenaded him with a song of gratitude for landing them more than $72 million in defense appropriations.) The grumbling has become so strong that some on the right have begun to encourage the more zealous Don Nickles to challenge Lott's leadership.

But Lott says he's not worried, and he's already aiming to work more closely with the Democrats. "You have to deal with the reality of what you can get done," he said in an interview with TIME last Friday. "When I first came to Congress, my attitude was, Give me the whole loaf or I want nothing. Now if I can get four or five slices, I'll take that."

--By Andrew Goldstein


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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