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A new lord takes giant strides up Capitol Hill

Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, is a man made to be a mediator, writes Rupert Cornwell
Washington - The United States has no post of leader of the opposition. But if it did, then there is scant argument over who would fill it. Not Bob Dole of course, vanquished by Bill Clinton in November and now septuagarian superstar of the late-night comedy circuit; and certainly not the chastened 1997 model Newt Gingrich, humbled by ethical lapses despite the distinction of being the first Republican since the Depression era to win consecutive terms as Speaker. Instead, step forward Trent Lott. Trent who? The 105th Congress which opened this week should soon dispel any lingering ignorance.

As Senate majority leader, the post he took over from Mr Dole, Chester Trent Lott is lord of Capitol Hill and the most powerful Republican voice in the land. He will be his party's chief negotiator with the President and prime shaper of the Senate's business. Bipartisanship is the catchphrase of the hour. Whether word is transformed into deed depends on him, at least as much as Mr Clinton. And thus far the omens are good.

When he defeated his fellow Mississippian Thad Cochran to become Majority leader last June, Mr Lott was expected to be far more confrontational than the pragmatic and non-ideological Mr Dole. Was he not a former Democrat with the special fire of the converted, an obdurate who in his first term as a Congressman in 1974 was one of the very few to reject impeachment of Richard Nixon until almost the very end? But things have not worked out like that.

In one way certainly, Trent Lott is an emblem of his times, and the extraordinary grip of Dixie on the pinnacles of American politics. An Arkansan holds the White House, a Tennesseean the vice-Presidency; the Speaker is a Georgian, and the House Majority leader a Texan. And now another Deep Southerner at the helm of the Senate. The rest though is paradox.

Mr Lott may be an unabashed conservative, opposed to abortion, gun control and strong supporter of a balanced budget amendment and a reduced role for government. But he is also a mediator who seems, oddly, to have learnt that skill much as Bill Clinton did, as a boy forced to intercede to keep the peace between his mother and an often drunken father (the couple would later divorce).

He is calculating and openly ambitious; never more so than when he successfully ran for the second ranking post of Republican Whip in 1994, after just one term in the Senate. But Mr Lott is also gregarious and widely liked. He can sport a Southern drawl befitting one who grew up in Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast - but can talk faster than a Brooklyn car salesman and dresses like a duke.

Above all, colleagues say, he is an organiser and an operator, scarcely less skilled at building legislative coalitions than Mr Dole himself: in short a compromiser, as he must be in an institution of 100 individuals of whom a true majority is not the arithmetical 51, nor the present Republican strength of 55, but the 60 votes required to cut off a filibuster. Managing a body each of whose members are wont to look into a mirror and see a future President has been likened to herding cats or - to use Mr Lott's preferred metaphor - "putting bullfrogs in a wheelbarrow".

And he might be forgiven some delusions of his own. His relative youth (Mr Lott is only 55), the eminence of his job and his smoothness in front of the cameras virtually guarantees him a place on the list of potential Republican Presidential aspirants in 2000 or thereafter. For the moment though, in a system of divided government, most important is how he works with the present occupant of the White House, who is of course no mean operator himself. And the start has been promising. Buttressed by a reinvented moderate called Bill Clinton and the dealmaker Trent Lott, that famous "vital centre" might just prevail after all.