Post-Lott GOP Leadership

The timing of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) decision to pack it in after 34 years in the House and Senate came as something of a surprise to many of his colleagues, but everyone who knows Lott appreciates the reasons behind the decision.

He seriously considered retiring in 2006, but bowed to pressure from his Senate colleagues who didn’t want yet another GOP seat up for grabs at a time when campaign resources were stretched thin. It turned out to be the right decision, as in less than a year he emerged from the shadows to reclaim the No. 2 leadership job in the Senate.

Having proved all he wanted to prove, however, and hurting financially both as a result of a lifetime of public service and Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed his own home as it devastated the Mississippi coast, Lott decided it was time to move on. His seat appears safe, as whoever Gov. Haley Barbour (R) appoints will run for the right to finish out Lott’s term with the extremely popular Sen. Thad Cochran (R) on the ballot along with a GOP presidential candidate who will be heavily favored to carry the state.

So Lott’s timing makes all the sense in the world, though it has created more than a little turmoil within the Senate Republican Conference as his colleagues jockey both for the whip’s job and other leadership posts left open as those holding them try to “move up.”

It was clear from the moment Lott made his statement that his job would go to Jon Kyl, the Arizona senator who has emerged as perhaps the toughest and most organized conservative within the conference. Kyl as whip working alongside Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) guarantees Senate Republicans will continue to have the leadership needed to tie up Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) majority.

The more interesting question involves the chairmanship of the Senate Republican Conference, the post Kyl is vacating. Last week the speculation centered around Texas’s Kay Bailey Hutchison, the current chairwoman of the Republican Senate Policy Committee; Tennessean Lamar Alexander, who narrowly lost to Lott last year when the Mississippian won the whip’s job; and North Carolina’s Richard Burr.

By week’s end, however, it appeared that Hutchison was reconsidering as many of her colleagues, while regarding her as extremely able, began expressing concern about her announced intention of leaving the Senate to run for governor. This would, as of this writing at least, leave a contest between Burr and Alexander.

As readers of this column know, I have great respect for Alexander in spite of the fact that prior to his election I’d always considered him more moderate than conservative. In fact, like his fellow Tennessean Bill Timmons,  I’d backed his more conservative primary challenger when he first ran.

I still remember a lunch some years ago when Timmons, one of the most knowledgeable conservatives I’ve ever known, asked me if I could name the one Senate aspirant we’d both been wrong about. The answer was simple: It was Lamar Alexander, who finally found his calling in the Senate and emerged as a serious and conservative legislator. In a sense, he’s reminded me of the late Paul Coverdell of Georgia, who came to Washington as the candidate of Georgia’s moderates, but served as one of the more thoughtful and effective conservatives any of us had ever met.

Mistaking style for substance, his opponents often underestimate Alexander’s toughness. He’s soft-spoken, decent and thoughtful, but unbending once he decides he’s right. This is something Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are still learning, as Alexander’s refusal to accept their desire to drop language he authored allowing small businesses to require their employees to conduct business in English without fear of harassment from federal bureaucrats taken with political correctness has tied up final passage of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.

They no doubt assumed Alexander would back down on what they suspected he had to consider a seemingly minor provision in the bill, but they were wrong. One of the things I admire most about Alexander is his deep understanding of the immigration issue and the need to promote assimilation among all who would become Americans.

Richard Burr is an able conservative with a great future ahead of him, but Alexander’s thoughtfulness, his ability to put together bipartisan coalitions to achieve policy goals where possible and to fight on principle when necessary make this conservative hope that after Thursday he will be a part of the Senate Republican leadership team.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com