Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lott returns to Senate Republican leadership

Lott returns to Senate Republican leadership
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans narrowly elected Sen. Trent Lott to their new leadership team on Wednesday, re-embracing a lawmaker who earlier had been forced to step aside as their leader over racially charged remarks.

The 49-member Republican caucus selected Lott to be the party's new whip, their No. 2 job in the chamber, as they sought to regroup after last week's elections placed Democrats back in control of the U.S. Congress.

Lott will replace Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was elevated to the top job, Senate Republican leader, for the 110th Congress set to convene in January. McConnell succeeds retiring Bill Frist of Tennessee.

"We want to work with the Democrats. Our preference is to accomplish things rather than block things," McConnell told reporters after the party's secret balloting.

In returning to leadership, Lott brushed off questions from reporters. Standing beside McConnell, he said: "The spotlight belongs on him."

Lott had been viewed as an effective Republican leader, one who was able to rally his colleagues and skillfully use the chamber's rules to move or stop legislation.

Lott was also seen as an articulate speaker -- until four years ago when he made a racially charged remark in a 100th birthday salute to Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former segregationist who ran for president in 1948.

By suggesting the nation may have been better off if Thurmond had won, Lott, in what was meant to be a light-hearted tribute, ignited a political firestorm and he was replaced by Frist as Senate leader.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana opposed Lott's election as whip, saying he voted instead for Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who lost by one vote. But Lugar explained Senate Republicans overall were ready to re-embrace the amiable Mississippian.

"There was the acceptance today that he has admitted making an egregious error, and some feel he paid a very heavy cost," Lugar said. "But at the same time, he has skills that should be recognized and utilized."

Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, "For many African Americans the sting of Trent Lott's hurtful words are unlikely to expire anytime soon." But Watt expressed hope Lott would use his new post to help the plight of the poor.


On the other side of the Capitol, there was a new twist in the battle between Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Steny Hoyer of Maryland to be elected on Thursday as Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives.

Murtha was quoted as describing as "total crap" an ethics and lobbying reform bill offered by Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic leader who is set to be elected House speaker, the chamber's top job, in January.

Murtha offered the description during a meeting on Tuesday with a group of moderate House Democrats, according to a Democratic source who was in the room.

The source confirmed a report in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill paper, that Murtha told the group he would still work to pass the measure because it has been pushed by Pelosi, who has vowed to clean up how the scandal-rocked Congress does business.

But Murtha disputed characterization of his comments.

"I agree with what Nancy is trying to do," Murtha told MSNBC. "The crap I'm talking about is the crap that people have violated the law."

"What I said was it's 'total crap' that I think we have to deal with an issue like this ... when we got a war going on and all these other issues," Murtha said.

Pelosi has endorsed Murtha, who helped lead the Democratic charge against the Iraq war, over Hoyer, her current deputy.

Murtha has faced complaints from public advocacy groups about abusing his position as a congressman to benefit clients of his lobbyist brother.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Donna Smith)