Trent Lott's Plan to Take Over the Senate

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Shortly after Missouri Democratic incumbent Jean Carnahan conceded defeat at 2 a.m. last Wednesday, giving Republicans control of the Senate, an aide sneaked into Trent Lott's empty Capitol office, pulled out a bronze name plate from a bottom drawer and put it on top of the senator's desk. MAJORITY LEADER was engraved on the plaque under Lott's name. Lott never considered Daschle's coup 18 months ago, which got Vermont Sen. James Jefford to defect and gave Democrats control of the Senate, a legitimate transfer of power. He was never able to digest it. So he never threw away that plaque, but rather kept it stored in his bottom desk drawer. And in the waiting room outside Lott's office, Daschle's photo was never added to a framed composite picture of every majority leader the past century.

Putting the MAJORITY LEADER nameplate at the front of his desk may seem premature, but not by Lott's calculation. He hopes to be majority leader not just at the beginning of next year when Republicans have 51 or more seats in the Senate — but next week. In fact, last Tuesday afternoon, as Lott sat in his ornate office on the second floor of the Capitol staring at two wide-screen TV's blaring election returns from ten different stations around the country, he was secretly plotting a counter-coup against Daschle. That was why the phone call that had just come in Tuesday afternoon was important. It was from Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican senator the late Paul Wellstone had unseated 12 years ago. Lott pushed the mute button on the TV remote so he could hear what Boschwitz had to say. Angry that a Wellstone memorial service last week turned into a partisan political rally, Minnesota's unpredictable Gov. Jesse Ventura last Monday appointed independent Dean Berkley to fill Wellstone's seat until the senator-elect (Republican Norm Coleman) was sworn in next year. And Berkley wasn't telling anyone yet whether he'd side with the Democrats or the Republicans during his temporary duty.

Lott saw an opening and he was working feverishly to grab the Senate from Daschle during the lam-duck Congress. The chamber was divided 49 Democrats to 49 Republicans with the independent Jeffords standing with the Democrats on leadership votes. But if Lott could get his hands on one of Daschle's votes, the chamber would be split 50-50 with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaker to put Republicans in charge during the lame-duck session. Former Republican Congressman Jim Talent who beat Carnahan, was supposed to fill the unexpired term of Carnahan's dead husband as soon as his victory was certified. But Missouri's Democratic governor might drag his feet on the certification, so Lott couldn't count on Talent taking the seat before the lame duck session ran out.

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That's why Lott had developed a sudden affection for Dean Barkley. "We're offering to be helpful to him in any way we can," the Mississippi senator told TIME with a coy southern drawl. Get Barkley to side with the Republicans on leadership votes and Lott could score a counter-coup on Daschle.

Boschwitz and Lott traded intelligence on the campaign to win over the Minnesota independent. Boschwitz was already lobbying Barkley and getting others in the state to phone him. Lott was organizing a Senate blitz from Washington. "I've got Arlen on the trail talking to Barkely," Lott told Boschwitz. The moderate Specter would likely be an ideological soulmate. Lott also managed to get the jump on Daschle, getting a phone call himself through to Barkley before the Democratic leader had managed to reach him.

Last Thursday morning, Lott was back at his desk between press conferences, fielding calls from senators around the country to talk about next year's agenda, but still plotting to snare the Senate from Daschle next week. A phone call came in from Vice President Dick Cheney. "You in some undisclosed location?" Lott joked. The Secret Service always seemed to be whisking Cheney away because of a terror threat. This time Cheney wasn't hiding. Ironically, he was in South Dakota for some hunting. "Did you bag any Democrats out there," Lott said with a laugh. After trading stories about their favorite hunting rifles, the two men got down to business.

"You've been great," Lott said. Not only had Bush and Cheney been barnstorming the country but Bush had ordered every cabinet officer who could legally do it to hit the road and campaign the last month. It paid off, Lott told Cheney, poll numbers for key GOP candidates like Chambliss, "were moving all the time" the past month, Lott told Cheney, and usually up. The two men turned to capturing the Senate next week. Talent "is on my list of people to call today," Lott told Cheney. "The minute he shows up here with his papers and gets sworn in, we're in the majority." But you can't assume Talent will get here before the lame duck ends, Lott warned Cheney. That's why Lott was working on Barkley.

Later Thursday, Lott met with Berkley who had come to Washington for a round of visits. But by then, Daschle had caught up and met with Berkley as well. So far neither man has been able to bag him. Barkley will decide Tuesday the party he'll vote with on leadership issues.

Lott already has a plan for what he'll do if he takes over Senate during the lame-duck session. He'd try to move the stalled homeland security bill Bush desperately wanted, maybe push for the energy bill Republicans wanted that would allow more oil exploration in Alaska. Lott knew by heart the number of Bush nominees that had been approved by committees but were cooling their heels awaiting action on the Senate floor: 17 for District Court judgeships, one for a federal Circuit Court seat, an assistant secretary of state nominee, a deputy secretary of energy nominee and a nominee for the Federal Communications Commission. "The minute I was recognized as majority leader, I would call up the executive calendar and we would begin moving those nominees," he promised.

It would be sweet revenge for the indignities Dashle has made him suffer the last 18 months. After Jeffords' defection there were private recriminations flying back and forth within the Senate Republican Caucus. Nickles made private soundings to see if he could unseat Lott — soundings that soon went nowhere.

Lott picked himself up and proved a spirited minority leader. Next week, when Republicans caucus, he'll be easily picked as majority leader. "I just feel exhilarated about having another opportunity," he told TIME. He also adds: "I've learned some lessons. Clearly, I'll make greater use of our committee chairmen than I did the last time. I will make a greater effort to consult and reach out to Republicans and Democrats." Lott made pains not to gloat post election, realizing he now had to produce legislation and he'd need Democrats to do that.

But in private he couldn't hide his relish over returning to power. Sen. Pat Roberts, who's in line to take over the Senate Intelligence Committee and who's eager to have that post, phoned Lott shortly after Cheney's call to smooze. The two men set up a lunch in the Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria that day. Lott planned to give Roberts the post, but he decided that when he met Roberts for lunch, the first words out of his mouth would be: "I'm going to make you chairman of the Ethics Committee" a panel most members detest serving on, much less heading. Then he'd watch Roberts' jaw drop. "Hey you got to have some fun around here," Lott told TIME with a laugh.