Lott beats Alexander 25-24 for comeback

Senate Republicans chose Trent Lott (Miss.) as their new whip yesterday by the narrowest of margins, cementing his comeback after four years out of leadership and signaling a GOP minority ready to assert itself and bounce back from defeat.

Lott bested Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who began openly campaigning more than a year ago, by 25 votes to 24. Senators said Lott’s proven negotiating ability and his institutional knowledge made the difference as Republicans prepare to move into a full cycle of minority status for the first time since 1995.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who was unopposed in his bid for conference chairman, said “experience” was the singular force behind Lott’s last-minute triumph against the well-liked Alexander. “There’s nobody better at working with other folks, including across the aisle, than Trent.”

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) echoed that sentiment, saying, “I want people with confidence and people who will work well with the Democrats” in the leadership.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) noted Lott’s rededication to the party as he worked his way back from the turbulence of 2002, when the Mississippian was forced out as majority leader under pressure from the White House after making remarks seen as racially insensitive.

“Trent Lott was a great team player after suffering a great emotional defeat for him,” said Allard, who publicly supported Alexander. “He has worked hard since then. I think [Lott backers] appreciate that.”

Lott has called the whip’s post the best job in the capital, and yesterday said it was the “job I have loved to do the most.” The longtime House whip, who also won a  one-vote Senate whip election in 1995 against former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), must now try to divert the media attention he naturally attracts toward the Republicans’ new majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Arriving before the cameras yesterday, the new GOP leadership team referred to McConnell one question about the conference’s post-election mood – “upbeat,” he said, “which may surprise you” – before the topic turned to Lott. The new whip demurred, seeking to shift the spotlight back onto McConnell, “where it belongs.” McConnell then closed down the press conference.

The challenge McConnell and Lott face in ensuring that the latter does not upstage the former will be amplified as senators jostle to position themselves for presidential bids. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP’s frontrunner, was a strong Lott booster as the latter delayed any public campaigning until Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the natural heir to the whip job, lost his reelection race.

Less than 18 months ago, Lott was the subject of rampant retirement rumors after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, demolishing his family home in Pasacagoula, Miss. But the personal setback appeared to reinvigorate the institutionalist Lott, who took on an increasingly helpful role for the GOP leadership led by the man installed to replace him, outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Lott also led the way at times as Republican lawmakers asserted their independence from the Bush administration. Lott publicly warned the president in March that if he vetoed legislation negating a ports takeover by a Middle-Eastern company, “Okay, big boy, I’ll just vote to override your veto.”

That independence was a factor for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), another Lott backer, who said the events of 2002 were water under the bridge.

“Trent understands … that what the president may want may not be what we can advance,” said the centrist Snowe. “You have to have a broader umbrella for all Republicans. Not every Republican is going to be able to vote the same way.”

Republican senators cast a unified vote for the rest of their leadership, including Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) as GOP Policy Committee chairwoman, John Cornyn (R-Texas) as conference vice-chairman and John Ensign (R-Nev.) as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.

Cornyn said yesterday that the closeness of the whip vote would leave no lingering tension in the conference, adding that Alexander would play a key role.

“I would not be surprised,” Cornyn said, if a leadership position tailored to Alexander’s strengths were created. Senate Democrats crafted their own new post this week for their victorious campaign chief, Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Cornyn, whose new mandate is to hone and articulate the GOP message, also described a willingness among Republicans to heed the Democratic majority’s call for bipartisanship but rebel when it is called for. “It doesn’t mean we are going to be unnecessarily partisan … but we can shape, or in some cases stop, legislation,” he said.

McConnell had a similar message, telling reporters that “we represent a vigorous body of 49, and hopefully a minority that is only in this position for a couple of years.”

Republican Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.) gave Lott’s nominating speeches, according to sources, while Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.) gave Alexander’s.

Democrats, who faced no contested leadership races, were watching the contest almost as avidly as Republicans. Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor (D) issued a statement hailing Lott’s win, and new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said at a breakfast interview yesterday morning that he has “great affection for Trent Lott.”

“Behind the scenes the past two years, he has been extremely helpful to me,” Reid said.

Roxana Tiron contributed to this report.