Lott's Departure Precedes Ethics Restrictions

Trent Lott becomes the latest Republican to announce an early departure.

February 19, 2009, 8:51 AM

Nov. 26, 2007— -- Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is calling it quits only one year into his six-ear term, giving Republican leaders one more headache as they head into an already tough 2008 election cycle.

Lott announced in Pascagoula Monday that he would resign from the Senate before the end of the year, becoming the latest in a string of prominent Republican lawmakers to leave Congress.

In the Senate, GOP veterans John Warner of Virginia, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Wayne Allard of Colorado have all, for various reasons, already decided not to seek re-election.

Those departures are more troublesome than Lott's for Republicans because Warner, Hagel, Domenici and Allard are all from battleground states.

Lott and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Ida., who opted not to resign after an embarrassing scandal but will not run for re-election next year, are both from states considered reliably Republican.

A source close to Lott said the next phase of Lott's life "involves a whole lot of money."

"As you remember," the source told ABC News, "it was a tough decision for him to run for re-election. He decided to run because felt he had to help his state deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now that the state is in recovery and Haley Barbour has been re-elected governor, he feels he can move on to the next phase of his life."

Lott's resignation before the end of the year will allow the senator to leave Congress before new ethics rules, enacted into law this fall, would force him to sit out for two years.

As the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, Lott had a hand in vetting the new ethics rules, but he insists those rules changes had nothing to do with his decision to leave Congress.

"It didn't have a big role in that decision," Lott said. "There are limits on [when a Senator can lobby] already."

Lott said he has not entered into official negotiations with any lobbying firm and suggested he may join a law firm instead. He also said he would think about teaching and has already offered his services as the head coach at his alma mater, Ole Miss, an offer, Lott joked, that was immediately rejected.

Lott's Mississippi colleague, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, announced last week that he would be seeking re-election in 2008. A special election to fill the remainder of Lott's term will be held in 2008 as well. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will appoint a Republican in the meantime.

It is a similarly bleak story for Republicans in the House of Representatives, where the most recent big name Republican to bow out is Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Just two years ago, Hastert was second in line for the presidency but resigned his post as House Speaker to Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when Democrats captured control of the body in 2006.

Another ranking Republican to announce he won't seek re-election to Congress is Mississippi Republican Chip Pickering, who had been the odds-on favorite in the very long queue to succeed Lott.

It is unclear if Lott's announcement today will change his mind.

For Democrats, former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, who made a national name for himself suing tobacco companies, would be the go-to guy. Moore's intentions in the aftermath of Lott's unexpected announcement are also unclear at this point.

In any case, Lott's departure and Craig's bad press could cause Republicans to commit additional resources in those states and make it more difficult for them to erase Democrats' razor-thin majority in the Senate.

Simply put, they will have more open seats (23 with a special election in Mississippi to name a successor to Lott) than Democrats and their 12 senators up for re-election.

Lott was the Republican leader in the Senate who oversaw the unsuccessful impeachment trial of President Clinton in the late '90s.

He lost his leadership position after an off-hand remark at a birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., in 2002, sparked a political outcry.

In feting Thurmond, Lott said, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

Thurmond had run for president in 1948 as a segregationist Dixiecrat, and Lott's comments were considered by many to be inappropriate; he resigned his leadership post within weeks.

Resigning as Republican leader was undoubtedly the nadir of Lott's political career, but it also set up a miraculous political recovery.

Announcing his resignation in Pascagoula, Lott conceded, "This is not something that is negative or trying to rewrite or change history."

"It is what it is," he said. "I have been on mountaintops and down in valleys. I took a few licks, I made some mistakes. When you get in the leadership, you get out on the pint and you get your nose bloody."

Lott was first elected to the Senate in 1988 after already serving 16 years in the House of Representatives, Lott held leadership posts in both bodies. Most notably, Lott was the Republican leader in the Senate for six years, from 1999 through 2002 -- five of those as Senate majority leader.

After his precipitous fall from the Republican leadership, Lott had also worked hard to regain his stature in the Republican party. His election as Whip earlier this year -- the number two Republican in the Senate in charge of counting votes and enforcing the party line among colleagues -- signaled a redemption for him.

That post will now likely fall to either Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., currently the number three Republican as Conference Chairman, or Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was edged out by Lott when Democrats took control of Congress early this year.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has already said she won't seek re-election in 2012 and may resign earlier to run for governor of Texas in 2010.

It is a part of his legacy that won't get much play this week as he announces his resignation. But when Lott resigns from the Senate this year and when Sen. Larry Craig opts against running for reelection next year, it will be the death knell of the barbershop quartet known as the Singing Senators.

Lott and Craig are the only two of the four singing senators still in office.

Former Senator John Ashcroft, R-Mo., lost a reelection battle in 2000 and went on to become President Bush's first Attorney General. Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., alienated himself from hi barershop counterparts when he switched parties in 2001.

The group's popularity peaked in the period from 1995, when they appeared on the Today Show, to 1998, when they released their CD "Let Freedom Ring."

Ashcroft, Lott and Craig gave a trio performance back in June of 2007.

Lott had been rumored to be on the hunt for new talent. Prospects included Senator Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Senator John Thune, R-S.D.

Senator Lott's resignation all but assures little hope of a reunion, officially relagating the Singing Senators to the annals of Congressional minutiae.

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