The presidential impeachment drive that has cost Republicans,
ironically, two House leaders has now arrived squarely on the desk
Senate majority leader Trent Lott, posing the ambitious Mississippi
politician the test of a career.
With polls showing GOP popularity falling, some analysts say the
best Senator Lott can hope for is to get through overseeing the
impeachment trial without damaging his or his party's reputation.
Indeed, the scandal originally expected to devastate only the
Clinton presidency "is sort of like a tar baby," says Marvin Overby,
a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, who
tracks Lott's career. "Anyone who touches it is going to get
Yet others speculate that Lott, a well-coiffed Capitol Hill
veteran who is believed to harbor his own presidential aspirations,
could turn the sticky task into an opportunity to prove a leadership
talent so far seen as lacking in his Senate tenure.
"There are occasions when stature is made and perceptions can be
changed," says a Senate Democratic aide.
'Walking a tightrope'
As Senate Republicans meet today to hammer out a plan for
conducting the first impeachment trial in 130 years, experts agree
that Lott, the point man for the controversial and arcane
has an unenviable job.
"Obviously, you are walking a tightrope," says GOP strategist
Specifically, Lott must seek a way to finesse the divide between
two groups: Senate and House GOP conservatives and their pro-
impeachment constituents, who are demanding a full trial for
President Clinton; and Senate moderates and a broader public
favoring a short trial and censure.
Already, Lott is struggling to gain conservative backing for a
bipartisan plan for an abbreviated trial. The plan calls for a brief
presentation of the prosecution case and White House defense,
followed by a quick vote on whether a full trial is warranted. If
two-thirds of senators vote no, the trial would end.
The outcome of closed-door party meetings today will offer the
first clear signal whether Lott will be able to muster a widely
acceptable way out of this legal and political box.
Yet Lott's political background also holds clues as to how he will
tackle the job - and whether he can succeed. With a blue-collar
upbringing as the son of shipyard worker in the Mississippi gulf
of Pascagoula, Lott began his career as a Democrat. His first job
after law school was as an administrative aide to Rep. William
(D). Despite his reputation today as a hard-edged conservative,
these Southern Democrat roots have given him a distinct bent for
"He's a conciliator," says James Davis, professor emeritus of
political science at Western Washington University. Lott is known
for having friendships with Democratic colleagues, and has a solid
working relationship with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of