WASHINGTON — A political liability that could have cast a cloud over President Bush’s pro-business agenda in 2003 has been lifted with the resignation Friday of embattled Mississippian Trent Lott as majority leader in the Senate.
This story first appeared in the December 23, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Lott’s resignation, prompted by controversy about racially insensitive remarks he made, is not expected to alterably change the Republican-controlled Senate agenda, since it’s set by the Bush administration.
However, with the GOP holding a slim two-seat majority in the Senate with 51 seats, the White House may need a majority leader without controversy to help court moderate Democrats in order to see its legislation pass. Democratic votes are crucial to Bush because under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to move legislation to a final vote.
“Whomever the Republicans select as majority leader, they will continue to have a delicate balancing act in terms of keeping the GOP caucus members in line on major issues and the more Herculean task of attempting to assemble the 60 votes necessary,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation.
At the top of Bush’s agenda for the 108th Congress that convenes Jan. 7 is an economic stimulus package expected to contain up to $350 billion in mostly business tax cuts. The President has also endorsed extending unemployment benefits. Congress in the new year is also expected to vote on the newly penned Chile free-trade agreement and a similar pact pending with Singapore.
During Lott’s six-year tenure leading the Republicans in the Senate — the last two years of which his party was in the minority — the senator did ruffle feathers among fashion industry officials.
Retailers, for example, were miffed two years ago when Lott didn’t expeditiously bring a House-passed bankruptcy bill to a vote, giving lawmakers plenty of time to override a presidential veto before adjourning. The bill passed, but in the waning hours of the Congressional session, and President Clinton pocket vetoed the measure.
Domestic textile interests felt bruised by Lott when he went against a promise made to Sens. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.), by agreeing four years ago to a trade bill compromise that increased apparel imports from the Caribbean Basin.
It’s ironic, then, that Lott’s downfall came from a toast he made earlier this month at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party and retirement celebration. Lott praised Thurmond and his 1948 presidential candidacy. Thurmond’s platform for the Dixiecrat Party: keeping segregation.
The battleground for Bush’s agenda will be in the Senate. In the House, the President has a better shot at getting his legislation through, since the GOP majority there operates under a different set of rules favoring the party in control.
Republicans in the Senate have set a conference call for today to vote for a new leader. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a heart surgeon by trade, is the top contender for the post. Frist, and other candidates like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnel, the husband of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Oklahoma Sen. Don Nichols, now the GOP whip, are all considered proponents of the President’s free-trade and tax-cutting agenda.
“Leadership posts are a matter of personality,” said Augustine Tantillo, a longtime lobbyist for the domestic textile industry and Washington coordinator for the American Textile Trade Action Coalition.
A leader has to balance party goals, issues related to their home state and demands of the opposition, Tantillo said.