Lott: New Spark Plug For The Senate

Conservative Trent Lott is cutting deals as Majority Leader

`Gridlock" doesn't seem to be part of Trent Lott's vocabulary. In his first two weeks on the job, the Senate Majority Leader revived dormant health-insurance-reform legislation, pushed for a bipartisan welfare overhaul compromise, and pledged a vote on the stalled Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage. He even cut a deal with a liberal Senator, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), to secure the confirmation of Alan Greenspan to a third term as Federal Reserve Board chairman. Not bad for a deeply conservative Mississippian dismissed by critics as too ideological to build consensus.

Lott, who entered the Senate in 1989, says he's just trying to do the right thing. "It's in the best interest of the Senate to try to work together across philosophical and party boundaries," he says. But Capitol Hill insiders are starting to wonder: How long can Lott's hands-across-the-aisle approach last? It's not just that he faces mounting resistance from unyielding Democrats and GOP hard-liners in the House and Senate. Lott's deft legislative maneuvering is starting to make Bob Dole's Presidential campaign aides squirm. They fear that his dealmaking--meant to help Hill Republicans win reelection this fall--will aid President Clinton by letting him take credit for tax cuts and welfare and health-insurance reforms that pass on his watch. Dole's Senate was more confrontational, but it left Clinton with far less to crow about.

That doesn't seem to concern Lott, though. A fiercely ambitious pol, he hopes to make his mark quickly. "He wants to get off to a good start by appearing able to work with the other side," said Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). The leader won plaudits from Feingold and other Democrats on June 25, when he brought campaign-finance reform to the Senate floor. The measure failed, and appears to be dead for the rest of the year. By merely scheduling the vote though, Lott, a bass crooner with the GOP Singing Senators quartet, showed his willingness to build bridges to all factions.

TALKING TURKEY. The same spirit was evident in Lott's work on the 1997 budget. Despite opposition from some hard-right members of the House, where he served for 16 years, Lott worked with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an old friend, to craft a blueprint that satisfied Republicans of all stripes. And he offered to talk turkey with Democrats on raising the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour. Even Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who accuses the GOP of pursuing an "extreme" agenda, praises Lott's "new willingness to work with us."

The 55-year-old lawmaker's honeymoon may soon end, however. He could have big trouble trying to sell flexibility to firebrand House Republicans disdainful of the other chamber's more pragmatic instincts. "It's still the same Senate," scoffs freshman Representative Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.).

Then there's the Dole camp, which is more concerned about winning a Presidential election than seeing a Republican Congress chalk up legislative victories that might actually help President Clinton in the polls. Acknowledging those fears, Lott has agreed to defer action on sweeping tax reductions in 1996 to deprive Clinton of a chance to sign an election-year tax cut, GOP sources say.

GOP rebellions and Presidential politics may soon plunge the Senate back into gridlock. But for now, the new leader is determined to get something done.

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