NICKLES PLUGS LOTT
Things were moving fast and furious on Monday on Capitol Hill and around the country as Republicans attempted to get a handle on exactly how to play out the Trent Lott/leadership soap opera. Things got off to a rousing start when CNN reported mid-morning that Sen. Bill Frist had thrown his support behind Sen. Don Nickles, who on Sunday was the first GOP Senate caucus member to call for a new election for leaders.
Quickly, CNN retracted the report, although it's unclear why. "It was a misunderstanding of what Frist actually said," says a CNN Washington staffer.
Perhaps the confusion is because Frist, who is also mentioned as a possible leader candidate, is on record as supporting elections and a possible change in leadership. No more, no less.
Conservatives in Washington were somewhat surprised that it was Nickles taking the lead over the weekend. He is someone who has played the political game cautiously throughout his career, and who went out of his way to be deferential to Lott's leadership while serving as his No. 2. Despite the fact that he was term limited as Republican Whip, and a number of conservatives hoped he might challenge Lott in the recent leadership elections, Nickles chose not to do so.
"It's surprising in a way," says a prominent conservative in Washington. "But with Nickles, the timing has never been right. He's always played by the rules and understood his place when it comes to leadership. This unfortunate mess has presented him with really the first opportunity to make a play if he wants it."
The operative word is "if." Nickles, despite media spin, has not stated definitively that he will challenge Lott should things come to that. Monday it was very clear from his comments when read in full, and without spin from Lott backers and media suckups, that Nickles was not pushing for a caucus vote for himself. Rather, he was calling on the caucus to do the right thing for itself and the national party.
It also wasn't clear that Nickles was sticking his neck out for someone else -- despite what the Washington Post was reporting in Monday editions. Under that scenario, Nickles was doing heavy lifting for Sen. Mitch McConnell or Frist, both of whom, some analysts think, might not be positioned or want to be positioned to alienate potential votes inside the caucus.
But those in the know with Nickles say the senator wasn't doing anyone's dirty work. Rather, he was simply doing what was best for the GOP. "When everything is said and done, people today might be mad at Nickles for taking the first swipe at Lott, but history will show he did the right thing," says a staffer for a Western state Republican senator. "Someone had to get the ball rolling, as distasteful as it may be. There is a political component here that had to be addressed by the caucus. We all know Lott is a good man, honorable. But we're standing on quicksand now, and if we didn't do something, we'd be stuck in the muck for two years. There is always the chance that Lott could survive, but he will do so because the caucus met."
Going into Monday night, it seemed Lott's survival would depend on a superb performance on Black Entertainment Television, and then several news cycles with little or no coverage over the Christmas holidays. That combination perhaps would allow Lott to enter the January 6th caucus meeting with a stronger hand than he currently holds. It's that possibility that has kept many Republican senators on the fence thus far.
"Lott is still leader, he's still got a lot of influence up here, and there are still a lot of people on Capitol Hill, in the Senate, who think he can survive this thing. No one, not other senators, not staffers, wants to be so far out on the limb that Lott can saw them off if he holds on," says a Republican Senate staffer.
Early reviews of his Monday appearance on BET were not good. He was evasive on several questions, including his position on the Martin Luther King holiday, and would not cite issues besides segregation that might have given Southerners in 1948 reason to support Strom Thurmond's presidential run.
As a result, expect to hear rumblings that Republicans are trying to move up the caucus meeting date, perhaps pre-Christmas. Such a plan, from a coordination standpoint, would be difficult: few Senators are currently in Washington and fewer want to return for what is sure to be one of the most contentious caucus meetings in recent history. Several things appear certain, however:
• Despite all of the talk of Frist, Nickles and McConnell, there almost certainly is a darkhorse candidate who will further cloud the picture if Lott's situation deteriorates in the next couple of days.
• At least one pundit -- Larry King, anyone? -- will utter the name John McCain as a prospective leadership candidate.
• Rhode Island moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee is feeling awfully cushy in the cat bird seat right now as both parties go out of their way to prove that they are his new best friend. Should Lott decide he wants nothing to do with the Senate once this ordeal is over, Chafee is suddenly the swing vote for majority control.
Speaking of Larry King, the CNN host had an opportunity to do a live show Monday evening that might have included an appearance with Trent Lott. Instead, King bypassed that opportunity to tape an interview with Ann Richards, former governor of Texas.
King opened the show by telling viewers that the show was being taped prior to Trent Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television and therefore would not include any breaking news on the Lott situation. But King's first question to Richards had been agreed upon and dealt with Lott, allowing Richards to lay out a broadside against the Republican Party. At no point during the day did King or his producers discuss providing Republicans with an opportunity to rebut.
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