Washington Prowler

The Counsel of Trent

As part of his big comeback, former Majority Leader Lott is trying to arrange a deal on Bush's judicial nominees.

By 5.10.05

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Senator Trent Lott expects to be majority leader of the Senate in January 2007, if not sooner, according to a Rules Committee staffer. Lott, who chairs that committee, has been using his chairmanship as the launching pad for the political comeback, most recently in his back door attempt to broker a non-nuclear-option-proliferation agreement with Democrats.

"Different things motivate different people," says the Rules staffer. "In the case of Lott, it's anger over the way he was treated by both his fellow Republicans and the media after the Strom Thurmond dustup. He wants his old job back, and he wants to see the look on the faces of people like President Bush and Sen. George Allen when he gets it back."

Lott is known to harbor resentment toward both the President and Allen. The onetime leader believes the former pulled his support for him during the Thurmond kerfuffle; the latter worked behind the scenes against Lott to push the candidacy of Sen. Bill Frist for the leadership post.

Currently, Lott has been exchanging e-mails with Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, a moderate to conservative from Nebraska, who is not seeking re-election in 2006. Nelson has been viewed by Republicans as critical to gaining simple majority votes on some Bush judicial and political nominees should Republicans successfully put in place a parliamentary procedure that prevents a Democratic filibuster on judicial nominees.

"Assuming we lose a couple of Republican votes after we make the switch, a guy like Nelson would be important to have on our side," says a Senate Republican staffer.

Words of Lott's attempting to negotiate around his leadership has been circulating on Capitol Hill for several weeks. When Republican colleagues approached Lott about the gossip, he downplayed it, saying that Nelson had approached him and that he had not initiated the discussions.

Lott staffers on Monday were encouraging leaks to Capitol papers that Lott was close to a deal with Nelson, and five other Republicans and five additional Democrats, that would involve the dozen pols signing a memorandum of understanding to resolve the judicial filibuster impasse.

"The deal is basically structured this way," says a Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations. "The Republicans are promising to block the nuclear option, and the Dems are promising to vote for four of the seven federal court nominees who are currently being held back. The other three would remain blocked."

The three held over from the 108th Congress who would remain filibustered are believed to be Bill Pryor, Priscilla Owen, and Janice Rogers Brown. (If so, what stigma would attach itself to Lott this time for his unwillingness to fight for Justice Brown, an African American?)

As well, Nelson and his fellow Democrats would promise to vote for cloture to end filibuster attempts on all other Bush judicial nominees, including Supreme Court picks.

Late Monday, Lott staffers were desperately trying to tamp down talk of their boss's dealmaking. In one conversation, a Lott staffer insisted that Lott did not have the five additional Republicans needed to swing a deal. Nelson, however, was telling others in the Senate that he did have at least five other Democrats to back his and Lott's proposal, though he confirmed that Lott did not have the five Republican votes. If the two men are able to broker a deal, it will deal a blow to Frist and other conservatives in the Senate who have been able to hold the so-called "nuclear option" over the head of Democrats for weeks.

"What's troublesome to some of us is that Lott and his Republican cohorts would willingly take four judges and sell another three down the river," said a Senate GOP leadership staffer, who spoke earlier Monday before Lott and his staff began backpedaling. "We've been fighting to get all of them a vote and to get them on the bench. Then our own turn around and cut the legs out from underneath us."

According to Senate insiders, Lott has lately been walking around the Capitol like the cat who devoured the canary. Not only is he creating headaches for Republican leaders and the White House, he is doing it in a way that would place him firmly in the middle of the biggest legislative fight to come along in years.

"Lott doesn't care about the nominees that are being filibustered," says the leadership staffer. "He cares about being able to crow about getting the President and Senate leaders clearance for the Supreme Court nominees. All of a sudden he has brokered a deal that current leadership on either side was unable to broker. He'd be insufferable."

And he'd be in a great position to attempt to take back his leadership position if Bill Frist does retire after the 2006 election cycle. Lott has made it clear he wants to get back into leadership in the worst way, though undercutting conservatives to broker a deal with moderates may not be the best way to show he still has juice.

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