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O.K., Senator Lott, It's Showtime

Republicans might control the White House and Congress, but "control" is a relative term. Ask Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is learning that lesson the hard way. With the Senate divided evenly between the parties, the Mississippi Republican has the trickiest job in Washington. His task: muster the votes to steer President Bush's ambitious agenda into law. "It'll be tough," Lott admits. "If I had 55 Republicans, or 60, I'd have a lot more fun."

It may not have been fun, but in the first three months of this session, Lott managed to put a few notches on his belt--and score points with business and conservatives. On Mar. 6, the Senate blocked a sweeping ergonomics rule championed by the Clinton Administration. Days later, Senators approved a bankruptcy reform bill, strongly backed by the financial-services industry, that had been stalled for years.

The first real test of Lott's leadership, though, will be in the coming weeks, when the Senate begins debate on Bush's $1.95 trillion spending blueprint and his ambitious tax-cut plan. On these, the GOP ideologically is in the minority. The Bush budget doesn't have the votes to get through the Senate Budget Committee, let alone the full Senate. Lott needs to bring a handful of recalcitrant Republicans on board, including moderates James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, both of whom think the $1.6 trillion Bush tax cut is too big. And he needs to woo crossover Democrats.

Winning moderates is one thing; doing it without antagonizing conservatives is another. The right--including Lott --thinks $1.6 trillion is just the starting point for tax relief. Conservatives also will dig their heels in on such legislation as education reform, where Bush's call for mandatory testing and school vouchers aren't going over well with Dems. Lott will have to bridge this left-right gap. In the meantime, he has to be careful not to give conservative rival Don Nickles (R-Okla.) an opening to challenge him as Majority Leader. It's Nickles, after all, who coordinated the ergonomics rule recall. Indeed, some observers say, Lott risks a coup attempt if he loses the tax-cut fight. "Lott is in a quandary," says Marshall Wittman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Further complicating the equation is the novel power-sharing deal that divides committee seats evenly between the two parties. The result: Key parts of the Bush agenda have encountered gridlock at the panel level. If Lott can't rely on his GOP chairmen to work through tough issues, Senate floor battles will resemble the Colosseum on Gladiator Day.

SQUISHY. Get ready for the first big show. Budget Committee Dems plan to hold firm against Bush's spending plan. Moderate Republicans, including committee member Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.), are squishy. So, Lott will take the battle straight to the floor, where the outcome is uncertain. "The Budget Committee has a hard-nosed, partisan bunch of Democrats," Lott fumes. "They're not looking for accommodation--they want to beat the Bush plan."

No kidding. Democrats vow to stick together until Lott agrees to a smaller tax cut. "If Lott decides to be the water carrier for Bush on the tax cut with no compromise, he's going to fail," warns Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Lott remains optimistic. After all, White House arm-twisting is just beginning, and so far he has maintained civility. By contrast, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Democratic chief Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) are barely on speaking terms. "I think we deserve some credit for kinda keeping cool," Lott says. But as spring arrives, watch for temperatures to rise as Lott tries to maneuver Bush's agenda through a reluctant Senate. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) may have Washington's toughest job: steering President Bush's agenda through an evenly divided Senate. On Mar. 16, Lott spoke to Capitol Hill Correspondent Lorraine Woellert.

On expanding Bush's tax cut:

The economyis causing more Senators to say we need to do this, or maybe even more. [Supply-side guru] Jack Kemp is saying a capital-gains rate cut would have the quickest impact. Of course, I agree. The marriage penalty tax cut doesn't cover working moms in the home. So we need to fix that.

On paying for capital-gains tax cuts:

Capital gains pay for themselves. If you cut capital gains, you get more revenue.It's called supply-side economics, and it works.

On the timing of a tax cut:

We may consider doing [it] sooner--April or early May. There will be growing pressure to do more of the things that help the economy quicker. One of the complaints, legitimately I think, is that the impact on the first year is very small, like $20 billion.... Marriage penalty, death tax--they're the right thing to do, but in terms of affecting job security and growth, they don't do a lot.

On whether Lott has the votes:

I doubt we'll lose more than a couple on our side, and we'll get between four and eight from the other side....Any Republican who votes against this bill will be remembered. And any Democrat who votes for it will be appreciated. That's not a threat, it's a fact.

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