The Blog


11:00 PM, Feb 9, 1997 • By MATTHEW REES
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BILL CLINTON AND TRENT LOTT, the Senate majority leader, are the two most important politicians in Washington, and, from all evidence, they really like each other. They've talked about ten times since the election -- about the balanced-budget amendment, Medicare, tax cuts, and education. Twice, the president has called Lott specifically about a controversial chemical-weapons treaty. He also phoned on December 26 while Lott was home in Pascagoula, Miss. , to talk about the budget and Newt Gingrich's ethics woes and to wish him a merry Christmas. Two weeks later, Lott was paged by the White House as he sat in the office of Senate minority leader Tom Daschle; he returned to his own office for a friendly conversation with the president.

This is a far cry from Clinton's testy relationship with Lott's predecessor, Bob Dole. Indeed, Clinton and Lott may share the coziest relationship of any president and opposition leader since Dwight Eisenhower and Sam Rayburn. While their talks aren't always substantative -- "We're not writing a budget over the phone," says Lott -- they are especially significant because the White House has problematic relations with House minority leader Richard Gephardt, a likely presidential opponent of Al Gore's in 2000. Also, the nowdiminished Gingrich is a bitter Clinton foe.

The chemistry between Clinton and Lott may prove to be the basis for a center-right governing coalition that is likely to lead to an early budget agreement, some kind of tax cut, a crime bill, and perhaps some minor product- liability reform.

Dick Morris, the not-quite-disgraced consultant who has worked closely with both Clinton and Lott over the years, predicts a flurry of activity between his two former clients. The reason, Morris told me, is that they are both out to show that their respective parties can be trusted. Lott wants to prove that Republicans aren't going to use Congress simply as a weapon with which to recapture the White House, and Clinton seeks to restore faith that a Democrat can be trusted to run the country. They have a real incentive to work together. Says Morris, "Their partisan interests will lead to bipartisanship."

Though they're ideologically and stylistically very different (Lott is a conservative who prizes order, Clinton is a chameleon who welcomes chaos), it shouldn't surprise anyone that the president and the majority leader have hit it off. Mike McCurry, the president's press secretary, explains that "the southernness of it all is very compelling. Lott knows the same kind of folks Clinton knows. . . . They're both in the business of trying to help people on the back roads of the South." But they are also career politicians (Lott was elected to the House in 1972) and share some painful family history, including alcoholism, divorce, and fathers killed in car accidents. "I feel very comfortable relating to [Lott] and I do like him, personally," Clinton told the Wall Street Journal. Lott told me he has "very informal, even social" relations with the president: "We can talk honestly with each other." But, he insists, that doesn't mean he will melt when the president comes calling: "We come from the same neck of the woods. It'll be harder for him to charm me."

Further bolstering relations is the appointment of Erskine Bowles, an investment banker of moderate political temperament, to replace Leon Panetta as Clinton's chief of staff. Lott clashed with Panetta, a left-liberal ex- congressman, and privately referred to him and other Clinton aides as " Sandinistas." Bowles is a different story. "I know we're going to be able to work with Erskine Bowles," Lott has said; "he's a good choice." After appearing together on the January 19 Meet the Press, Lott and Bowles remained in the studio for another thirty minutes, talking. And this Lott- related harmony isn't limited to the White House, either: Daschle, too, has nice words for the majority leader, saying he and Lott "have a very good relationship" in which they talk daily and "I pop into his office or he pops into mine."

So, the legislative machinery will run more smoothly in the next two years than it did in the pre-Lott era. When Dole left the Senate and Lott succeeded him, Congress was in gridlock. Democrats didn't want to hand Dole any victories, Dole didn't want to give Clinton anything to sign. Enter Lott. After being stymied in the opening weeks, he supervised the passage of much of the stalled legislation.