Lott wins whip|[11/15/06]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 15, 2006

WASHINGTON – Sen. Trent Lott, ousted from the top Senate Republican leadership job four years ago because of remarks considered racially insensitive, won election to the No. 2 post today for the minority GOP in the next Congress.

The Mississippi Coast native returned to the center of power by getting the position of vote-counting GOP whip, nosing out Sen. Lamar Alexander. Sen. Rick Santorum told reporters that Lott beat Alexander by a 25-24 vote.

After an intense evening in which both men lobbied colleagues during floor votes, the Republican caucus elected Lott, a one-time whip and majority leader, by secret ballot. Lott will be the GOP’s second-in-command to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was elected unanimously to be the Senate minority leader in the new Congress.

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With the midterm elections finished and Santorum, another candidate for the post, failing to win re-election, Lott cast himself as the more experienced candidate and the better choice for job.

The Tennessee senator was not new to the art of counting votes among finicky colleagues, any one of whom can use Senate procedure to hold up business or kill legislation. A former Cabinet secretary and governor and now a deputy Republican whip, Alexander cast himself as a morale-booster for a demoralized Republican caucus.

Remaining neutral was McConnell, who was uncontested to be the Republican minority leader. He’ll replace Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who is retiring from the Senate under a self-imposed term limit and is a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in two years.

Lott’s victory over Alexander showcases his lobbying and vote-counting skills. Alexander had campaigned for the position for 18 months and the night before was predicting that he would win by as many as 30 votes. But Lott’s last-minute lobbying – by telephone, on the Senate floor, in the hallways – turned the secret balloting into a comeback.

The win reinstates one of the Senate’s best dealmakers, a skill certain to come in handy in a chamber split by one vote – at a time when both parties want legislative accomplishments to tout on the campaign trail in 2008.

Lott relished his duties as majority leader but stepped down in 2002 under pressure over remarks that were interpreted as racially insensitive. He has long hinted at making a comeback bid.

The GOP whip’s race was but one source of suspense in the wake of the midterm balloting, in which war-weary voters stripped President Bush’s party of its majority. Congress returned to a lame-duck session to pass a budget, and the Senate was considering Bush’s nomination of a new defense secretary.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats elected their leadership roster.

Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois will ascend to majority leader and majority whip, respectively.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will continue as the chairman of the party’s campaign fundraising committee. Schumer also will add vice chairman to his title, making him No. 3 in the leadership and a chief strategist.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington will serve as conference secretary; Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will chair the steering committee; and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota will serve as chairman of the research-focused policy committee.

House Democrats choose their leaders on Thursday; House Republicans elect theirs on Friday.