“It hasn’t been the best week,” says a Republican leadership aide. “But Senator Frist isn’t the one conservatives ought to be attacking.”
If not Bill Frist, then who?
Well, for starters, Sen. Trent Lott, who, true to his reputation as true Senate Operator, was pulling the strings on the Gang of 14 nuclear disarmament team.
Knight Ridder last Friday reported on a secret meeting between Lott and Sen. John McCain in the hours leading up to last week’s compromise. Lott apparently made a production of entering McCain’s office space through a side door, but then, later spoke to several reporters about his meeting.
According to several Lott staffers involved with his management of the Rules Committee, Lott actually handed off his negotiations — as well as the various proposals he had been working on with Sen. Ben Nelson — after it was reported that Lott was trying to cut the legs out from under his Republican colleagues.
In fact, Lott was in almost constant contact with McCain and several other allies, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, who joined the coalition later in the negotiations. Throughout, however, Lott refused to sit in on further meetings with Democrats, leaving that to McCain.
“McCain was already on board, and Lott knew that he more than anyone would be willing to work the media in a way that Lott could not,” says a Rules Committee aide. “But we were all working on this. When you have an opportunity to move into leadership, you don’t pass it up.”
Leadership, you say?
As previously reported by the Prowler, Lott has his eye on the majority leadership once again, after mismanaging the politics and the policies of the GOP Senate for several years.
“Lott knows how to work a caucus for a vote, but he just has lousy political instincts,” says a Senate colleague. “The Strom Thurmond mess was just the capper.”
Along the way, Lott was singularly responsible for the 50-50 split Republicans had to deal with after the 2000 election, when he allowed Sen. Connie Mack of Florida to retire from his safe seat with no clear favorite to replace him in 2000.
Lott has been looking for ways to undercut both President Bush and Sen. Frist, as he blames both — though Bush more — for his political purgatory out of leadership.
But Lott intends to challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell for Senate leader after Frist’s retirement in January 2007. “This coalition is more than just about judges,” says the Rules Committee staffer. “It’s a Republican group that the Senator believes will give him his leadership slot back. These independents won’t support McConnell. At least that’s what we think now.”
Lott, apparently, isn’t stopping at the judge deal. According to a Senate Democratic leadership aide, the man from Mississippi has been speaking with Sen. Joe Biden about brokering a Bolton vote, again pulling an end run around Frist and his leadership team.
“He isn’t trying to help the President,” says the leadership aide. “He’s working the caucus in a way that would damage Bolton’s chances for confirmation. Every conservative should be worried about this.”
Frist’s lousy week has little to do with his leadership abilities, which should not be in doubt given his track record of forcing the issues with Democrats. It has more to do, Senate insiders say, with the unstable and often precarious situation that takes hold in the cloakrooms before Senators reach the floor for votes. It is there where the real arm-twisting takes place, not among staffers and their bosses, but the bosses themselves.
“I don’t think a lot of these guys know which they will vote before they hit the floor on some issues,” says a Senate staffer. “I don’t know what my boss is going to do half the time. It might depend on which Republican he talks to before he walks out on the floor. Sometimes it’s that fluid. Frist and his people can only do so much before it is out of his hands. The judges votes is a great example of that.”