As if his cowardice and inability to maintain the GOP’s Senate majority were not enough, Trent Lott now can add desertion to his ever-expanding list of misdeeds as the Senate’s Republican “leader.”
When the Senate turned to final passage of the Patients’ Bill of Rights on June 29 at 7:34 p.m., Lott was AWOL. The pro-lawyer measure, cosponsored by Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.), passed 59-36, without Lott’s vote on either side.
Fourteen minutes earlier, a less interventionist measure offered by John Breaux (D., La.) and Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) and endorsed as the Republicans’ substitute failed 36-59, without Lott’s involvement. According to the Congressional Record, Lott last voted that afternoon at 6:57 p.m. on an amendment by Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.). Then Lott split, or — as Don Nickles (R., Ok.) announced — he became “necessarily absent.”
With Lott not around to corral errant GOP senators, McCain and eight other Republicans — fully one fifth of those present — voted with all 50 Senate Democrats to approve a statist, pro-litigation HMO reform proposal that still leaves 44 million Americans uncovered.
The fact that Lott high-tailed it on this important measure is unforgivable. Lott’s absence would have been trivial had he merely missed Jack Reed’s (D., R.I.) soliloquy on the Fifth of July — Cape Verdean Independence Day. The Patients’ Bill of Rights, however, was South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle’s first test as majority leader. Could he unite his caucus to pass legislation important to Democratic lawmakers and their donors? Could Lott, now heading a GOP minority, keep his troops in step and either slow Daschle or — maybe, just maybe — squeeze the Breaux-Frist measure through?
Daschle earned an A on his test. Lott scored a big, fat, red F. Rather than complete his exam, Lott handed it in, unfinished.
So why didn’t Lott participate in these two crucial votes?
“I don’t know,” a Lott spokesman said by phone. “I thought he had.” Asked to elaborate, the media aide told me to await word from Lott’s press secretary. Ron Bonjean answered neither of the two phone messages I left him.
One frustrated Republican Senate staffer finds all of this bumbling sadly familiar. “Lott seems out of his league against Daschle, who is George Mitchell all over again. He’s a smiling terrorist — Arafat with a shave, suit and tie, topped off with a smile and a ‘let’s work together for the Good of the Nation’ demeanor…They’re out for blood; we appear to want good government.”
If Trent Lott is a no-show for critical votes on key national issues, how can he inspire genetically nervous Republican senators like Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Maine’s Olympia Snowe (and even the frequently reliable John Warner of Virginia and Mike DeWine of Ohio) to do the right thing rather than help Daschle and Kennedy build socialism?
Daschle made none of this easy by debating the Patients’ Bill of Rights right up until the Senate’s July 4th recess. Still, he managed to keep all 50 of his Democrats on the Senate floor until the measure passed. Like hard-working public servants, they delayed their vacations until they had completed what they call the people’s work. Despite their dreadful legislation, one must admire the Democrats’ dedication.
Lott’s aloof attitude, in contrast, allowed four Republicans to vanish for these votes. Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, Texas’s Phil Gramm, and Alaska’s Frank Murkowski should have voted their consciences on these measures. Shame on them for leaving early.
Daschle’s victory will rally Democrats to fight for federal prescription drug benefits, a minimum-wage increase and, eventually, delays in or even repeal of portions of President Bush’s tax cut. GOP malaise, fueled by Lott’s parliamentary malpractice, will engender Republican surrenders on these and other matters.
Such were the stakes the evening of June 29. Trent Lott knew this, and yet he walked away. His dereliction of duty in this battle’s closing moments constitutes desertion. In wartime, uniformed deserters are punished swiftly and severely.
Luckily for Lott, he is surrounded by civilian colleagues rather than soldiers. More urgently than ever, one of them must challenge and dislodge him from the Senate’s Republican leadership. GOP voters deserve as much. Trent Lott’s disloyalty demands no less.