CNN BREAKING NEWS
Trent Lott Stepping Down as Majority Leader
Aired December 20, 2002 - 10:47 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are getting word that Mississippi Senator Trent Lott will step down as majority leader. CNN has confirmed that news. No word on what he plans to do with his Senate seat.
We have our Jon Karl on his way to Capitol Hill. Once again, we're getting word that Trent Lott will give up his fight to hold on to his majority leader post in the U.S. Senate.
Much more on that just ahead.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we talked about this a little off camera before we came on this morning. And I told you this morning, didn't I tell you, I would not be surprised if we saw this happen today, because we've seen what happens a lot of times in Washington, major negative announcements like this coming out on Friday, usually later in the news cycle. However, this is one coming out early on the news cycle.
This may give some other people some chance to jump on this news. Some name to be mentioned in that category might by Senator Bill Frist from Tennessee, the heart surgeon.
KAGAN: That was the next step up, that happened today, that he actually came up, having been quiet, not necessarily saying publicly, but he had come out and said that he was going to go for that majority post. The date that had been out there January 6, the date that the Republican agreed to vote on the leadership position, a lot of people said this story kept going and going, and the Republicans couldn't let it continue for two more weeks to go through the holiday season.
HARRIS: And pressure was mounting on Senator Lott. He was beginning to get in the last couple of days, more and more of his friends and supporters saying even if you want to go ahead and do this for your own sake and position, you can't do this to the party. We've heard a number of people, some of whom changed their positions on this, Congressman J.C. Watts came out in support of Lott, changed his tune yesterday dramatically by coming out saying that he couldn't see himself putting himself or his family or the party through this whole scenario.
Let's go ahead and bring in Ron Brownstein with the "L.A. Times" and here at CNN.
Ron, are you surprised not with the news, but the timing of this?
RON BROWNSTEIN, "L.A. TIMES": I am. This is another example of how the news cycle acceleration is really changing life in Washington. It's really almost impossible for a story like this to go on, even the three weeks originally to January 6 when Jeb Bush said earlier this week, this couldn't go on. He was exactly right. These things force themselves to a resolution very quickly.
HARRIS: Any idea, Ron, what may have been the straw that broke the camel's back?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think the indication of interest in Bill Frist, I would suspect, was the approximate cause of Lott concluding he could not survive. Leon, one question I've always had here, is would Trent Lott want to continue in the job even if he won a 26 or 27 votes and a bare majority to stay in. In 1998, when Newt Gingrich stepped down, his staff believed he still had a majority as speaker, but it was such a narrow majority that he could not could not function effectively on the job.
And Lott probably concluded that even if he could survived, it would be in such a way that undermined his ability to function. And with Frist as an attractive alternative, moving into the race, that in fact, it would be difficult even to get to that point.
KAGAN: Frist such an interesting story. I mean, here is a man who is a heart surgeon, gives that up in order to go and run for Senate. But an institution that has people who have served for so long, again this is getting a step ahead of things, but for him to go for the leadership position, the majority position, having only been in the Senate since 1994, isn't that an incredibly fast rise?
BROWNSTEIN: It is, Daryn. It's another example of what I was talking about, how the modern media cycle is changing the way politics works.
Traditionally, the way you would rise to leadership in the Senate is ability to build coalitions inside the institution, ability to work the members, seniority, familiarity with the rules, know where all the bodies are buried. But now, the key variable, the key attribute, is the ability to project a message and sell the party on television and speak to the public. On that front, many Republicans felt that Frist is a more attractive alternative than Lott anyway.
Part of Trent Lott's problem in this whole controversy has been there wasn't a huge amount of goodwill toward keeping him there, because there was a lot of ambivalent about him selling the party's message and whether he was the best face to put on the Republican Party as A southern Republican from Mississippi, with all of these views and controversy that have trailed him.
HARRIS: You say many Republicans feel that way. I can tell you where some of them live, the White House. Now, what I find very interesting about this, Ron, is we have been talking about this, late last week, early this week, about how the White House would stay on the sidelines to some degree because of this tradition of the White House -- the Senate resisting any pressure from the White House to tell them what to do. And in this case, it seems clear the white house had tabbed Senator Frist early into this process when it got clear, became clear there was going to have to be a change at this point. What do you make of that particular balancing act?
BROWNSTEIN: I think that it will be interesting to see as the reporting goes on whether any overt fingerprints on Frist's decision. I doubt it. But I agree with you, Leon, that the word was coming out very early on from sources close to the White House, the proverbial "source close to the White House," the president wouldn't be unhappy if Frist moved into the job.
Part of that, as I said, part of what saved Lott in the past was the sense that Don Nickles, the moderates felt, he would be too conservative, would lead the party in a direction, would make it tough for them to hold their seats in some of these swing states.
HARRIS: And he may have jumped the gun as well.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, the emergence of an attractive alternative made it much tougher. And I do think the White House has a lot of confidence in Frist after managing his very effective campaign that regained control of the Senate, being involved in the recruitment of the candidates who, by and large, were relatively moderate candidates in many of the states they brought. So I do think this is someone they feel can more effectively project the compassionate conservatism side of the agenda that President Bush put out there.
HARRIS: Ron Brownstein, from the "L.A. Times," appreciate you joining us. Take care.
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