What Trent Lott Brings to the Party

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Newly elected U.S. Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) remains silent among a throng of reporters after the new Republican Party Senate leadership presented themselves following secret voting on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 15, 2006.

To some observers, the choice of Trent Lott as the new number two Republican in the Senate may seem like a step backward for a party still reeling from its election drubbing. But in fact the upset victory by the Mississippi Senator, bounced out of his post as the Republican leader of the Senate four years ago after he made comments praising then-Senator Strom Thurmond for his segregationist 1948 presidential campaign, may be the clearest sign yet of how the G.O.P. plans to move forward.

G.O.P. Senators said they were eager to have Lott back in the leadership, as he's known as a clever back-room dealer and tactician on the Senate floor, which operates through a bizarre, complicated rules that at times outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist didn't seem to understand. "He's the most effective leader I know," said Arizona's John McCain, who has won Lott's support for his likely presidential bid. Minnesota's Norm Coleman called Lott "the master of the Senate."

And that level of savvy could come in especially handy now that Repubicans must adjust to their minority status. Along with newly elected Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Lott could spell problems for incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who stands nine votes short of what he needs to get anything controversial passed. Lott is more conservative and partisan than his opponent, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, which could signal more polarization and less cooperation in the Senate; in other words, the post-election talk of putting partisanship aside and getting the people's business done may be short-lived.

Lott captured the minority whip post by the slimmest of margins, winning 25-24 in the secret ballot over Tennessee Senator and former G.O.P. presidential hopeful Alexander. "I feel exhilarated I have an opportunity to come back," he told reporters. That comeback may have surprised people outside of the Beltway, but it has been carefully plotted for quite a while. After he was replaced by his colleagues as the Senate leader with Frist, it was expected Lott might simply remain in the shadows or even retire. Instead, he got himself a plum post as the Senate Rules Committee, helped the new Senate leaders on key strategy and used his new freedom from leadership to take a few shots at the Bush White House; more than once, he expressed feelings other Senators had but didn't express publicly or as tartly, particularly when he bashed the Administration for picking Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court Nominee.

In fact, Lott is still angry at the White House — and especially Karl Rove — for the way he was so unceremoniously dumped, so he may not be as willing as other Republicans to do the Administration's bidding. That's only one of the risks the choice of Lott for such a prominent position carries. Republicans replaced him as their leader because they worried that his remarks about Thurmond didn't reflect well for a party trying to win minority voters and even moderate white voters by diversifying its ranks and avoiding race-baiting tactics it has used in the past. Considering that the party has been accused of using similar tactics in certain key election races this year, most notably the Harold Ford-Bob Corker Senate contest in Tennessee, Lott's reemergence might not exactly project the image the G.O.P. wants right now.

The move is also surprising since Lott has ascended to the Senate post in the same week that Republicans appointed Mel Martinez, a Senator from Florida, to head the National Republican Committee. Martinez, who is Cuban-American, is expected to help Republicans woo Latin voters. Republicans, however, say they're not worried about Lott's past remarks. ""People understand he has been deeply apologetic," said Maine's Olympia Snowe, a close friend of Lott's. Lott's colleagues have been willing to forgive him for his comments. Now, if he helps them win back the Senate, maybe they'll even forget.

with reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington