Lott to quit Senate only one year into new term

Top of the Ticket politics blog
Politics, coast to coast, with the L.A. Times
Veteran political writers Don Frederick and Andrew Malcolm offer irreverent takes on the 2008 campaign.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sen. Trent Lott, a 35-year Capitol Hill veteran who staged a political comeback after losing his Senate leadership post because of racially insensitive remarks, plans to resign from office before the year is out.

With his decision, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican will avoid a new ethics rule that takes effect by the end of the year, allowing him to pursue a lucrative lobbying job after a year’s wait rather than after two years.

The Mississippi senator is the latest veteran Republican lawmaker to announce plans to depart Congress after the party lost its majority to Democrats in the 2006 election. Among them is former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who resigned Monday night.

Lott is the sixth GOP senator planning to leave the narrowly divided chamber, which is mired by partisan conflict that is expected to worsen as the 2008 campaign heats up.

“One of the things that troubles me now is the great difficulty in passing needed legislation,” Lott said Monday in Pascagoula, Miss. The 66-year-old, who only last year won reelection, said he had made no decision on his post-congressional career. “I don’t know what the future holds for us,” he said. “A lot of options, hopefully, will be available.”

But the timing of his departure fueled speculation that Lott was leaving to join the parade of former lawmakers who turn to lobbying to cash in on their experience and connections.

An ethics bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this year doubles, to two years, the “cooling off” period that senators must wait after leaving Capitol Hill before they can lobby their former colleagues. House members balked at lengthening their turnaround time, leaving their waiting period at one year.

Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Lott could fetch up to $2 million a year as a lobbyist.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 153 former members of Congress have lobbied the federal government this year. Among the lawmakers-turned-lobbyists are Lott’s predecessor as Senate majority leader, Bob Dole (R-Kan.), as well as former Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.)

“We have a revolving door that is spinning out of control,” Holman said.

Lott said the new rules didn’t play “a big role” in his decision. “I’ve talked to my former colleagues. They say that a lot of what you do anyway is involved with consulting rather than direct lobbying,” he said.

Instead, he said he and his wife decided that “it’s time for us to do something else.” He said he had considered retiring in 2006, but decided to run because his state was struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina and would need federal help. Lott’s Pascagoula home was destroyed in the 2005 storm.

The GOP departures have been a blow to Republican hopes of regaining their majority. With Lott’s departure, the GOP must defend 23 seats next year compared with 12 for Democrats.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said that once Lott resigned, he would appoint a successor to serve until an election next year. GOP Reps. Charles W. “Chip” Pickering and Roger Wicker are considered possible successors. Among Democrats, former state Atty. Gen. Mike Moore is mentioned as a possible candidate next year.

Retiring at the end of their terms are Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, John W. Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Wayne Allard of Colorado, all states where Democrats believe their party can be elected. Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, who had announced his intention to resign after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct, changed his mind and decided to serve until his term expires.

Lott was forced out as Senate Republican leader in December 2002 after saying, during a 100th birthday celebration for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), that the country might have been better off had the then-segregationist been elected president in 1948.

Lott noted that Thurmond had carried Mississippi when he ran as a Dixiecrat. “We’re proud of it,” Lott said. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Reports of Lott’s past opposition to extending the Voting Rights Act and to making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday became part of the debate.

Lott apologized repeatedly for “a poor choice of words” during a lighthearted celebration. He insisted he had not meant to endorse segregation.

Just last year, Lott narrowly won the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leadership job.

Lott, a onetime University of Mississippi cheerleader, was elected to the House as a Republican in 1972. Elected to the Senate in 1988, he was majority leader from 1996 until mid-2001, when Republicans lost the majority after Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) became an independent. Lott was set to retake the post when he lost the job in December 2002.

The president, whom Lott took to task in his recent memoir, “Herding Cats: A Life in Politics,” for contributing to his downfall as Senate GOP leader, praised him. “With service in the Republican leadership in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, he has skillfully advanced legislation and effectively championed key principles of our party, including low taxes and a strong national defense,” Bush said in a statement.