Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) stunning return to the Senate leadership was made possible by the last-minute defections of Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) from Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) rival campaign for Republican whip.
Ironically, four years earlier, Warner and Collins helped drive Lott from leadership by giving his rivals support at crucial moments during the controversy over his comments at the 100th birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
The week before last month’s leadership election, Alexander told reporters that he had been promised enough votes to become whip. He said he was working to achieve a consensus of support within the GOP conference.
But when senators cast secret ballots the next day in the Old Senate Chamber, Alexander garnered only 24 votes. Lott collected 25, giving him a one-vote upset victory.
Lott was able to win because of the last-minute support of several wavering centrists, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Those votes came his way in the final hours because of the work of a small band of strong supporters such as Sens. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain: China has done ‘nothing’ on North Korea Graham: There are 'no good choices left' with North Korea Graham: North Korea shouldn't underestimate Trump MORE (R-Ariz.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), John ThuneJohn ThuneRyan praises FCC chief's plans to roll back net neutrality FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality Overnight Tech: FCC chief poised to unveil plans on net neutrality | Uber eyes flying cars | Media rules under scrutiny MORE (R-S.D.), and John Sununu (R-N.H.).
The day before the election, Alexander believed he had received promises of support from 28 of his colleagues. But he suspected that one of his pledged supporters, Warner, was wavering, and confronted him about his position, said a person familiar with the sequence of events.
Warner told Alexander that he was in fact planning instead to support Lott, a longtime ally. It was at least the second time Warner flipped on the question of Lott’s role in the Republican leadership.
Four years earlier, Warner had been one of Lott’s strongest defenders during the controversy that erupted after Lott praised Thurmond with an off-the-cuff suggestion that the country would have done well to have supported his 1948 segregationist presidential campaign.
But Warner later surprised his old friend when he told him he would support Sen. Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) campaign to replace him as majority leader, according to Lott’s memoir “Herding Cats: A Life in Politics.”
“Warner eventually phoned me, stating cheerily that he was on the Frist team,” Lott wrote.
Warner’s later defection back to Lott’s camp may have surprised Alexander, but he still thought he had the whip race in hand because 27 other Republicans had promised to support him, he said. One Lott ally said McCain was instrumental in persuading Warner to switch his support to Lott. Lott also held a long meeting with Warner.
After the vote, Alexander did not know who else deserted him.
“I wrote 27 thank you letters for 24 votes,” said Alexander yesterday.
Collins received a thank-you letter even though, according to Senate sources, she also defected from Alexander despite reiterating her support for him the day before the vote.
Lott’s allies pursued Collins vigorously right up until the day she was to cast her ballot.
Thune was seen having dinner with Collins and several other people the night before the vote, according to a witness. Thune’s office declined to comment.
Another source said Gregg worked on Collins as well. A third said McCain lobbied Collins, with whom he is close and regularly meets over lunch.
During the secret vote, Collins’s nervous body language led Alexander’s allies to suspect that she had switched at the final moment.
But Collins declined in an interview yesterday to reveal how she voted.
“I’m not going to discuss my votes in the whip race,” she said.
Four years earlier, Collins abandoned Lott at a crucial moment, Lott recounts in his memoir.
During a conference call with colleagues during the Thurmond controversy, Warner, who at the time was defending Lott, urged his fellow lawmakers to declare their support publicly for the embattled Mississippian. But then-Republican Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who was angling to replace Lott, urged the vote on supporting Lott to be delayed.
“Nickles’s monkey wrench quickly attracted support from several others. ‘He’s right. Let’s wait to vote,’ Collins said,” Lott wrote in his book. “Frist also expressed reservations about a vote then and there — a sign of things to come.”
Alexander yesterday declined to say whether Collins had promised to support him, declaring that he was ready to move forward and adding, “I’ve closed the investigation as to who might have changed.”
Alexander said he had hoped until the last moment that Specter would vote for him. The senior centrist had remained steadfastly undecided during lobbying for his vote.
Specter said in an interview that he met Alexander and Lott separately in the days before the vote. He said he telephoned Alexander the morning of the election to tell him that he would support Lott. He then told Lott.
Alexander said Specter handled himself like a “perfect gentleman.”
Many observers of the race between Alexander and Lott have speculated that Lott knew he had the votes to win when he publicly declared that he would enter the race a few days before the votes were to be cast.
But a former Republican aide said Lott did not know that he had enough votes, but that he was confident he could win the support he needed.
The former aide said there are two things important for being a whip.
“One is being able to count the votes and the other is being able to get the votes,” said the source.