Having covered the Senate on and off for more than six years, I can say with confidence that the Senate won’t be quite the same without Trent Lott.
He's a formidable force in the Senate, walking around, chatting up reporters, joking and backslapping his fellow senators — a man who revels in colloquialisms, like his favorite, "Lord willing, the creek won't rise," which translates to, “He's hoping something won't happen, but it's out of his hands.”
Lott genuinely loves mastering and winning the backroom political games that goes on around here. He's a frank talker, something that sometimes gets him in trouble — like the time during the immigration reform debate last year when he jokingly suggested (off cam) electrifying the border fence because his electrified goat fence was quite effective. "I’ve got two goats on my place in Mississippi. There ain't no fence big enough, high enough, strong enough, that you can keep those goats in that fence ... Now one of the ways I keep those goats in the fence is I electrified them. Once they got popped a couple of times they quit trying to jump it.”
The four-term senator loved to work deals and poke his finger in the eye of a rival when he was Republican leader, and he continued that tradition when he won election by his fellow Republican senators, a career second chance, as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate in 2006 — a position called "Minority Whip."
He seems to thrive in this position as chief vote getter, working behind the scenes on many issues from tax reform to immigration reform. He's maintained good relations with the many diverse members in his caucus, and his relationship with moderates like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has led to key agreements on hot button issues, like Iraq and war spending bills.
Lott worked hard to regain the respect of his colleagues after his fall from grace in 2002, following what some perceived as racially-tinged comments he made at a birthday party for former segregationist presidential candidate Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-Miss.) The feisty Mississippian was ousted as Republican leader, and in his book, Herding Cats, A Lifetime in Politics, Lott blamed his successor, Sen. Bill Frist, (R-Tenn.), as one of the "main manipulators" in the events that led to his fall from power. Lott wrote that Frist's actions amounted to a "personal betrayal" and said Frist "didn't even have the courtesy to call and tell me personally that he was going to run."
To that end, Lott was one of the first senators to endorse Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008. Frist bowed out of the presidential race early on.
Lott has had a love-hate relationship with the White House. In Herding Cats, he told readers what was widely known at the time of his downfall in 2002 that the president's comments at the time (that Lott's comments "didn’t reflect the spirit of our country") were "devastating ... and nasty."
Aides close to Lott saw the writing on the wall weeks ago when longtime aide Susan Wells left the Senate after decades of service to the senator. In addition, Lott didn’t show up for a final Republican leadership press conference before the Thanksgiving recess. Aides began to ask questions. The senator, according to a close ally, made the decision about a week ago and began quietly informing his friends.
Lott was very emotional at a news conference in late October in speaking about his gratitude to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) when she cast the sole Democratic vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee for Lott's fellow Mississippian, Judge Leslie Southwick, nominee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Critics of Southwick tried to paint him as a racist using an opinion the judge joined. Feinstein was not convinced, and it was her support that led to Southwick's eventual confirmation. In tears, he said he's going to dedicate a chapter in his new book when he writes it, described by the senator as a type of "Profiles in Courage," a famous book written by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Lott publicly struggled with whether or not to seek re-election in 2006. He told me just after he was elected with 60 percent of the vote that he had gone against his wife Tricia's wishes — deciding that the last minute that he would stay in the Senate to use his powerful leadership post to get much-needed resources for his hurricane ravaged state. Lott lost his own coastal home in Pascagoula to Hurricane Katrina.
An ally close to Lott tells FOX that the senator came to the decision, because, "Now that Gov. Haley Barbour has been reelected and the state is well on its way to recovery" the senator felt he could leave with a good conscience.
Congressional aides say the senator is abruptly resigning to make it in under the wire as new Senate rules keep former members from lobbying their colleagues for TWO years, as opposed to ONE year in current rules. The new rules go into effect Dec. 31, 2007, or when the Senate adjourns sine die for the year.
Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour has 10 days to appoint Lott's replacement, who will then serve until the 2008 election, at which point voters will elect someone to serve out the balance of Lott's term, which runs through 2012.
Lott's seat is likely to remain Republican. Former Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering, who announced his own retirement from the House earlier this year to seek a better paying job, is widely seen as a potential successor. Pickering is a former Lott aide — no word yet from Pickering's office.
Trish Turner is an FNC producer based out of Washington D.C.