Lott Under Fire
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SEN. TRENT LOTT: I am hanging in there. We are going to work through this in a positive way. I do have the support of my colleagues in our conference there in the Senate, and I’m going to continue to reach out to men and women of all backgrounds and races and ethnic backgrounds to learn how we can turn this situation into a positive for our state and for all American people. That’s what I’m committed to, and I’m working on a plan to help carry that out. Life is a series of challenges, in my opinion.
There are good times, bad times, and times for correction. You learn, you make a mistake, and you look at that and you ask why did that happen and how did it affect people? Did it hurt people, and what can you do to correct that? There have been other people forever that have had a bad experience and then have worked to overcome it, and have made… you know, things occur, helped things to occur that actually help people. But it’s going to be specifics. We’re going to have to do things like making sure that people that need help get it; whether it’s our elderly poor or whether it’s our inner city people that need community renewal; whether it’s faith-based initiatives that help people in a personal basis; whether it’s, you know, voting rights requirements that are enforced with election laws that actually provide funds to make sure we do have an election system that’s fair for everybody and that not only can they vote, they’ll have their vote counted, whether it’s in Mississippi, or whether it’s in Oregon, or Maine, nationwide.
I have been on the phone, obviously, continuously for the last week and have been talking to Senators, frankly, of both parties. I’ve had Democrats that have called, sent e-mails, saying, you know, “we’ve been through difficult times and we understand and we’re with you.” Offered their support, many of them have said, “what can I say?” I said, “Well, if you have something to say…” like former Senator Paul Simon from Illinois, was there at that event that I spoke to and he has spoken up. Bob Dole last night, Orrin Hatch this morning — so, yes, a lot of Senators have been… I’ve been talking to them, and, you know, answering their questions, asking their advice, and I believe I have their support.
You know, there are simple things in life that become quite complicated. But, quite simply, I was elected by the people of Mississippi to a six-year term. I have served two years of that contract. I have a contract, and I’m going to fulfill it.
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: And for the latest twists and turns in this Trent Lott story, we’re joined by Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine, and longtime congressional watcher Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Karen, today we had as we just heard Trent Lott vow to fight to keep his leadership post yet Senator Chafee became the first Republican Senator to actually call him to step down. What is the state of play?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, the state of play is that it’s becoming clear there are two realities here. There is the immediate reality for Senator Lott — sort of the reality inside the bunker. He has got to get 26 Republican Senators to support him. But outside the bunker, outside the Congress, there is a larger reality brewing. Every news cycle brings more bad news for Senator Lott. Today the White House it seems like could hardly be speaking any louder. Today we had the President’s brother and the Secretary of State speaking out against him.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Absolutely right. We have now a 20-day period presumably before we have this meeting of the Senate Republicans, the 51 to vote on or at least decide what they want to do about the leadership. But there is enormous pressure not to let this go 20 days. The White House wants to spend the next three weeks laying out their program to build some momentum for the next Congress. Senator Lott wants to let this keep going, because the longer it goes, the more the likelihood that some other story will crowd it out and maybe he can build more support. That is why we’re beginning to see the pressure ratcheted up, and clearly coming even as Ari Fleischer says their hands are off this from different sources around the White House as well as from the Senate.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there an organized opposition, Karen? Is someone spearheading this behind-the-scenes? Do they have a game plan for persuading…. if their aim is to end this short of January 6 — do they have any kind of game plan for getting him to change his mind?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, again, the problem is that he is speaking directly to his fellow Senators. That is his constituency. And right now, his fellow members in the Senate leadership do seem to be putting a pretty honest and direct effort into saving his job. So, in terms of putting outside pressure, there are all sorts of groups, primarily and most importantly conservative groups, pushing for this to come to an end. But in terms of organization, I don’t see it.
MARGARET WARNER: But as you both are pointing out, the Senators are the only one who have the votes. How much people can… how many Senators can he count on now? You heard him say, “my conference does support me.”
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Remember this is a secret ballot vote, too.
KAREN TUMULTY: With a history of lying.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The words of support are worth the paper they are printed on, is the way they usually frame it. And it’s a little difficult for Senator Lott because everybody is scattered. He can’t look at them face to face. There were reports they had 16 or 17 firm commitments. For somebody in his position needing 26, that is not very good right now. It’s also important to remember that whatever the White House does here, it’s a high stakes and difficult game for them.
This is not a matter where people, Senators listen to the President, because among other things, we’ve got Senators I know who have told me that they have commitments from Senator Lott for chairmanships down the road, for help with committee assignments. He can expand the size of committees to let junior members on. Some of them have commitments and they don’t want to let him go because they have not any idea whether the next person will fulfill those commitments. And some of the pretenders or challenges for leadership are making commitments of their own. Is this kind of a setting for the White House to be out on a limb saying in effect, “he has got to go, and we want Bill Frist,” that is the message coming clearly — is a little tricky business, and nobody really knows where the votes are, except clearly Senator Lott does not have at this point 26 solid supporters.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Karen, what is the White House role here? What are they really doing? You hear Ari Fleischer say today, “we are not going to get in a leadership fight,” but Lott complained today there are a lot of leaks from the White House, negative leaks; what are they really doing?
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, they understand they can’t be seen doing this too overtly – because the Senators — there is also institutional resistance. The Senators – they believe they are part of a co-equal branch of government and the White House should not be telling them what to do, but fact is if the White House doesn’t see any action anytime soon, then we are likely to see the pressure become much more direct and directly out of the President’s mouth.
MARGARET WARNER: When we talk about the White House, are we talking about Karl Rove, the political director? Is he really the operative here?
KAREN TUMULTY: Everyone assumes that he is a busy man these days, and this is very much at the top of his agenda because this is putting a crimp in the President’s agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: As you both were pointing out. Now there was something strange today, Norm. We ran the clip in the news summary. Trent Lott said, “I’ve talked to the President. We had a good conversation, blah blah blah.” Ari Fleischer said today he hasn’t talked to the President, the President hasn’t talked to him; he may have talked to top aides. What is that about?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That had to make Senator Lott feel good. It is the White House saying, “We’ve got your back.” Obviously either Senator Lott misspoke or exaggerated a little bit. He talked to somebody else at the White House or he hadn’t talked to the President today or as we were joking earlier, maybe he talked to Clinton.
KAREN TUMULTY: Or President Thurmond.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But when you get something like that happening, it’s a further embarrassment, and it is another signal of some distance here. Normally, if the Senate Majority Leader said he spoke to the President, even if he hadn’t spoken to the President, the White House would have said, “of course he did,” or would have handled it in a different way. Senator Lott right now is trying in every public venue that he can, as we see with the statements today, as we’ve seen with all the television appearances, and as he talks to his own colleagues to shore up his support, but the public setting right now has all kinds of forces working against him, so it’s clearly becoming a more steeply uphill battle as each day passes.
MARGARET WARNER: Karen, if we step back from this and we said in the last week we’ve had the President of the United States be harshly critical of the Majority Leader, the President’s brother, the Governor of Florida and the Secretary of State, and yet he is still fighting. I mean, you’ve both covered Trent Lott for a long time. Explain Lott’s thinking here.
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, Trent Lott is really a creature of the institution. His entire rise in politics has been understanding the institution, whether it was the House or the Senate; developing personal relationships with his colleagues; making his moves at exactly the right moment and most importantly, counting votes. And that is what he is going to have to do probably by the end of this week. He is going to have to make a very realistic assessment of how likely he is to get those 26 votes, and if he gets them, how tenable his majority leadership would be after that.
MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Norm, today he appeared to take off the table the one lever or threat that his aides have been circulating, that if he lost his leadership post, he might take his marbles and go home — quit the Senate, open it up for the Mississippi democratic governor to appoint a democrat. Why do you think he did that, and how do you think that will play?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: First of all, it didn’t look very good to basically be having — issuing a tacit threat, and then, of course, the White House responded, “well, if that happens, we’ll live with that consequence,” which was another signal there.
MARGARET WARNER: Because they would have Cheney as a tie breaker vote.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But, remember, partly what Senator Lott is doing is not just trying to keep his power position, he is fighting for his reputation and his legacy. He has been in public life, starting as a staff member to the Rules Committee in the House working for Democrat Bill Cullmer, his predecessor in the House, in the Senate. Now here he is basically fighting a reputation that he could go out as a racist segregationist — so partly what’s happening now is he is trying to maintain his reputation. I suspect what we will be seeing very soon is an attempt to find another place for Senator Lott from the White House and from some of his colleagues, perhaps a committee chairmanship, maybe a new committee on national security or homeland security, or something else, a place where he can continue to serve and maybe rebuild that reputation and they will use that as an outlet now that he has taken the other threat off the table.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Norm and Karen, thank you both.