Girding for battle, embattled top Senate Republican Trent Lott and his allies are playing hardball, threatening to hand the Senate back to Democrats. With a slim one-seat majority, Lott could tip the balance back to 50-50 by resigning—his replacement would be named by Mississippi’s Democratic governor—and then a single defection—safe money is on Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI)—would give back the gavel to Daschle’s Democrats. Assuming Lott stays the course—and he has given every indication he will—then all this will come to a head in three weeks, when his colleagues will decide his fate.
“Friends” of the Mississippi Senator made clear over the weekend that if he was forced to step aside from leadership, he would resign from the Senate altogether. If he did so, the Chafee factor would kick in. The liberal Republican from Rhode Island—who has resisted criticizing Lott for fear that that might pave the way for a more conservative replacement—would almost surely jump at the chance to bask in the media glow resulting from pulling a Jeffords redux.
Although lobbyists and top GOP boosters are terrified by the prospect of a Democratic Senate, the resignation gambit has backfired with the people whose support Lott needs most. Responding to Lott’s threat, White House aides—to their credit—have said that they are prepared to accept whatever the consequences of Lott resigning. As one senior GOP Senate staffer noted pointedly, “Blackmail is not a way to win friends around here.”
Several White House aides say they believe, based on conversations they’ve had, that Lott will not resign his Senate seat. If he does, though, the impact could be limited. Mississippi law calls for a special election within 90 days, meaning that if the GOP can get its act together, Republicans could reclaim their current Senate majority within a few months. If things look positive for the GOP candidate—and you can bet on a huge sympathy factor for anyone Lott endorses—then the risk of Chafee bolting drops considerably.
In fairness, Lott’s defenders make reasonable arguments that Lott is unfairly being singled out for harsh treatment. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), for example, remains a Senate Democratic leader despite his Ku Klux Klan past and his use of the N-word in an interview barely two years ago. But Byrd is the Democrats’ problem; it doesn’t excuse Lott for his comments. Regardless of what others have been able to get away with, though, there is no entitlement to lead. And as Lott’s problems mount, the odds of the GOP actually achieving anything plummet.
If Lott doesn’t step aside, his colleagues are likely to force him out of leadership—and they will have the chance to do so next month. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), the chairman of the Republican conference in the Senate, has scheduled an internal leadership election for January 6, meaning there will likely be a gruesome public feud for the next three weeks. One key Senator who has publicly supported him believes that Lott won’t survive that vote, though he won’t say so on the record just yet.
With the leadership vote looming, Senate Republicans face a gut check. Handing Democratic demagogues a victory will no doubt sting, particularly if the GOP loses the Senate majority for the second time in as many years. But the alternative—Lott defiantly sticking around in the top spot—is even more unacceptable. Caving to political blackmail sets a terrible precedent, one that nobody should want to see. Retaining Lott as leader will signal that the GOP is not a party of principle, but one based on the perpetuation of power.
Even if Lott does escape with his position as Majority Leader intact, his authority—particularly the moral kind—will not be. Whether deserved or not, Lott has become the bogeyman Democrats will use to flog all Republicans—a task made much easier with him as the face of Senate Republicans.
Notwithstanding the circus atmosphere, Lott has not committed sins as grievous as multiple Senate Democrats. But that doesn’t make Lott fit to lead. At this point, he can fight in vain for the next three weeks, or he can step aside to spare his party—and the country—a political blood bath. It’s up to him.