BOSTON — Striding to the House podium before his State of the Union speech last week, President Clinton paused to shake a hand - and Sen. Trent Lott, first among his escorts, bumped him from behind.
It was a small collision that may be a metaphor for large political struggles to come. Mr. Clinton has never been known for moving apace. But majority leader Lott prefers to push. "That's what it's going to be about" in weeks to come, says Paul Mize, a longtime Lott supporter. "Clinton likes to stand back and see. Trent likes to get down to business very quickly."
As Washington settles this week into its annual pugilism over the budget, more than creative math may be on display. The process will also highlight how far two well-coiffed politicians from the South have come to dominate power in the nation's capital.
Senator Lott (R) of Mississippi, and Arkansas-born Democratic President Clinton are now clearly the dominant politicians of their respective parties. They hold the keys to conflict or compromise on such important issues as budget deficits - something that affects the mortgage rate of millions of Americans.
At first glance the two men seem to have much in common. Both are amiable gentlemen prone to slapping backs. Both rose from hardscrabble roots and represent the new tradition of Southern politics.
Both have hired consultant Dick Morris to help them win office. Pragmatic, smart, and skilled in government, they don't hesitate to call each other directly.
But neither is apt to just roll over and let the other have his way.
The political factors that elevate the importance of their relationship also complicate it. Lott runs the most conservative Senate in 70 years, and has become keeper of the GOP revolutionary flame. Clinton, meanwhile, must lay the groundwork for his party's renewal and Vice President Al Gore's White House bid in four years.
In short, the ideological battle over government may reflect the more congenial natures of Clinton and Lott, but it is no less fierce.
"They are smart enough to recognize that their fates are tied together, and not in a zero-sum way," says Norman Ornstein, a Congress expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "They start with an easy ability to get along, and they understand each other. But I wouldn't push the commonalities too far."
Still, their history shows they can work together. Last September, with elections looming and the public still angry over the government shutdowns of the previous winter, Congress and the White House suddenly made law from a raft of significant bills: welfare reform, portable health insurance, a hike in the minimum wage.
What broke the logjam? "Clinton's relationship with Lott proved crucial," writes strategist Dick Morris in a recent memoir.
The Clinton-Lott axis, already in place before the elections last fall, was significantly strengthened in its aftermath. Notably, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who two years ago was setting the agenda and obscuring the president, found his power diminished by ethics problems and persistent unpopularity. Lott's star rose accordingly. Meanwhile, a reelected Clinton is more equal in power with Congress than he was two years ago.
But all this doesn't mean major legislation will breeze through Capitol Hill as easily as it did last fall. A crucial factor between Lott and Clinton is the conservative transformation of the Senate, which Lott himself personifies. Not only did the 1996 election replace a handful of Senate moderates - either through defeat or retirement - with younger Republican ideologues, it also handed the GOP its widest Senate majority since 1929: 55 seats.
There are early hints about how this strengthened majority will square off against the White House. It may give Clinton's agenda a hearing, but it won't tolerate government expansion.
"The State of the Union raised questions about whether the era of big government is really over," says Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia. "I counted 30 or more new initiatives."
Yet, like Clinton, Lott is drawn to engage (upon taking charge, he remarked, "I do like to get up on the horse and ride"). Sen. Bob Dole, Lott's predecessor, was a master of the Senate's rules of obstruction. The leader from Mississippi probably won't play that game. Clinton and Lott represent - indeed, pioneered - the two sides of modern Southern politics, which fosters a healthy respect between them.
"It's highly professional, with a bit of the blow-dry," says Will Feltus, a Mississippi native who is now staff director of the Senate GOP conference, referring to the style of politics both Lott and Clinton exemplify. "It is more issue-oriented rather than relationship oriented."
It is also conservative. In the past 30 years, Republicans have overthrown the post-Reconstruction order, in the process drawing Democrats to the right. The current national debate over the size and scope government has its roots in the new South.
And it is pragmatic. "If you are Republican in the South, you start with 25 percent of the vote against you, so you are pushed to the middle," Mr. Feltus says. "You can't run as a pure ideologue."
Clinton and Lott hew to very different ideals about government, but both understand the need for keeping to the center. The president's first two years in office taught him that. Gingrich's plight is Lott's example. At the end of the day that, more than their native taste for black-eyed peas, may keep them at each other's table.
"They are emblematic of two very different directions in Southern politics," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "They really don't agree on the nature of political problems, but they are now forced by circumstance" to seek common ground.