Defining moment for Senate leader

For Trent Lott, Clinton trial could be a sticky mess, or a way toelevate his stature.

The presidential impeachment drive that has cost Republicans, ironically, two House leaders has now arrived squarely on the desk of Senate majority leader Trent Lott, posing the ambitious Mississippi politician the test of a career.

With polls showing GOP popularity falling, some analysts say the best Senator Lott can hope for is to get through overseeing the impeachment trial without damaging his or his party's reputation.

Indeed, the scandal originally expected to devastate only the Clinton presidency "is sort of like a tar baby," says Marvin Overby, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, Oxford, who tracks Lott's career. "Anyone who touches it is going to get stained."

Yet others speculate that Lott, a well-coiffed Capitol Hill veteran who is believed to harbor his own presidential aspirations, could turn the sticky task into an opportunity to prove a leadership talent so far seen as lacking in his Senate tenure.

"There are occasions when stature is made and perceptions can be changed," says a Senate Democratic aide.

'Walking a tightrope'

As Senate Republicans meet today to hammer out a plan for conducting the first impeachment trial in 130 years, experts agree that Lott, the point man for the controversial and arcane proceeding, has an unenviable job.

"Obviously, you are walking a tightrope," says GOP strategist Frank Luntz.

Specifically, Lott must seek a way to finesse the divide between two groups: Senate and House GOP conservatives and their pro-impeachment constituents, who are demanding a full trial for President Clinton; and Senate moderates and a broader public favoring a short trial and censure.

Already, Lott is struggling to gain conservative backing for a bipartisan plan for an abbreviated trial. The plan calls for a brief presentation of the prosecution case and White House defense, followed by a quick vote on whether a full trial is warranted. If two-thirds of senators vote no, the trial would end.

The outcome of closed-door party meetings today will offer the first clear signal whether Lott will be able to muster a widely acceptable way out of this legal and political box.

Yet Lott's political background also holds clues as to how he will tackle the job - and whether he can succeed. With a blue-collar upbringing as the son of shipyard worker in the Mississippi gulf town of Pascagoula, Lott began his career as a Democrat. His first job after law school was as an administrative aide to Rep. William Colmer (D). Despite his reputation today as a hard-edged conservative, these Southern Democrat roots have given him a distinct bent for deal-making.

"He's a conciliator," says James Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Western Washington University. Lott is known for having friendships with Democratic colleagues, and has a solid working relationship with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

While his pragmatism helps explain Lott's willingness to push a compromise plan, some experts say he lacks the political steel to ensure his party's right-wing conservatives will fall into line behind it. "He's just not tough enough," says Mr. Davis. "He's more a public-relations type of majority leader." Lott, he says, is a far cry from past majority leaders known for their persuasiveness and arm-twisting ability, such as Sen. Lyndon Johnson (R). Johnson often applied "the treatment" to colleagues during his tenure from 1955 to 1961.

Indeed, Lott faces strong opposition from conservative Republican ideologues such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and also Lott's deputy - majority whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma. Many of these Senate conservatives, like Mr. Nickles, come from safe, pro-impeachment states and are thus bold in arguing for the necessity of a full-blown trial, including witnesses.

Nickles "is cultivating his base" and would therefore be "the natural person to lead" newer and more hard-line senators in calling for a complete trial, says Ronald Peters, a congressional expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman.

Less stature than Dole

Experts say Lott's ability to work out a compromise is further hampered by his lack of stature relative to past majority leaders, as well as by the unwieldy nature of the Senate as an institution.

Although Lott, a former University of Mississippi cheerleader, demonstrated substantial ambition and spunk when he leapfrogged over more-senior colleagues to become majority leader in 1996, he has failed to muster the authority enjoyed by his predecessor Sen. Bob Dole.

"Dole was truly a national political figure, who had a national reach and vision, whereas Lott has been a senator from Mississippi," says Mr. Overby. Mr. Dole also had served longer in the Senate, knew his colleagues better, and had the personal skills to turn those relationships into winning coalitions, Overby says.

Lott has stumbled in the past on major legislative efforts, such as attempts to amend the Constitution to balance the budget and to bridge divisions in the GOP over campaign-finance reform.

All these factors contribute to Lott's lack of strong authority in the Senate - an institution known for its members' individualism and the absence of tools to bring about party discipline. Indeed, governing in the Senate has been compared by past leaders to "trying to push a wet noodle" or "pull a rope of sand."

"Any one senator can make a majority leader's life miserable," says Barbara Sinclair, an expert on the congressional leadership at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Lott cannot just take a position and assume people will follow him."

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