As Trent Lott chats with reporters outside the Senate chamber, a
mischievous grin crosses his face. "Be right back," he says.
Without making a sound, the Mississippi Republican sidles up
behind his long-time friend and colleague, Florida Sen. Connie Mack
(R) and gives his left ear lobe a playful yank.
"Gotcha!" he quips.
The moment reveals much about Mr. Lott, the man who will likely
replace Bob Dole today as Senate majority leader. Gregarious and
good-humored, Lott cultivates informal friendships with fellow
lawmakers in a way Mr. Dole never would.
But Lott's garrulousness is only part of the picture. Colleagues
also know him as an ambitious, persistent, and shrewd politician
who mines every waking moment for political advantage.
His nearly certain victory today over fellow Mississippi Sen.
Thad Cochran (R) in the leadership contest marks the ascent of a
new generation of senators: young turks who came of age in the
House of Representatives and prefer its confrontational style.
If anything, Lott's tenure as Senate majority leader could turn
up the volume in a chamber long modulated by courtliness and
"Trent Lott is a true conservative," says Texas Sen. Phil Gramm
(R). "If he has to keep the Senate open all night or all weekend
for something we're right about, he'll do it."
Mr. Gramm's assessment is shared by Minnesota Sen. Paul
Wellstone (D), who suggests that Lott's election could add to "what
is already a significant amount of polarization."
Indeed, Lott seems to enjoy using the Senate rostrum for
political flamethrowing. Last week, when President Clinton's
lawyers tried to block a sexual harassment suit against the
president by invoking his "active duty" military status, Lott
"That was a defining moment for Trent," says Senate minority
leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota. "It's this kind of
hands-on, take-charge attitude I think we'll see a lot more of."
Within the Republican conference, Lott's brazen style has drawn
alternative jabs and praise. To many Republicans, like Utah Sen.
Orrin Hatch (R), Lott's "great rapport with the House" is an asset
in advancing Republican goals.
Others, however, especially long-time GOP moderates, say he
lacks the kind of clout enjoyed by more-senior members like Dole,
and frown upon his thirst for conflict. This generation gap became
apparent during last year's bitter race for majority whip, when
Lott defeated Dole's choice, veteran Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R),
by one vote.
Even Dole, in a lukewarm assessment, places Lott firmly in the
other chamber. "Trent's been a good whip," Dole told the Monitor.
"He knows his place. He knows the House."
Yet most Republicans, ranging from younger conservatives like
Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham to moderates like Maine's Sen.
Olympia Snowe, describe Lott as inclusive and pragmatic. "He's a
master of the soft sell," says Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Even some Democrats offer plaudits. Sen. Ernest Hollings of
South Carolina hails Lott's role in crafting this year's bipartisan
telecommunications bill. And Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey suggests Lott
might be easier to work with than his predecessor.
"Bob Dole has this steely image," Mr. Kerrey says. "If you go up
to ask him a question, you almost feel like you're bothering him.
Trent's much more approachable."
Most members attribute Lott's success in the insular world of
the Senate to his tireless legwork on the floor, where he buzzes
around with "the list" - a pocket-sized card bearing the initials
of every senator and his or her positions on pending bills. "Trent
loves to count votes," says Sen. …