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GOP conservatives grumble over Lott’s deal-making compromises

May 5, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ More and more these days, conservative Republican activists are comparing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to his predecessor, Bob Dole. They hardly mean the comparison as a compliment.

Lott’s recent deal making to approve a chemical weapons treaty and to strike a balanced-budget agreement with President Clinton alienated many vocal conservatives, who harbored high hopes when the Mississippi Republican succeeded Dole last year.

In their view, Lott has abandoned both them and his GOP principles in seeking to end legislative deadlock.

The criticism comes at a delicate time for Lott, who is trying to get things done in Congress while preparing for a series of speeches designed to raise his profile as a national GOP leader. The first of these, on taxes, was today at the Chicago Economic Club.

``There are many people who are not happy with him right now,″ said Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell of Virginia, an old Lott friend who nonetheless criticized him for backing the Chemical Weapons Convention.

``When it comes down to crunch time, you can’t trust him,″ Michael Farris, a conservative and national home-schooling activist, told the conservative weekly Human Events.

Much of the criticism comes from activists who regularly complained that Dole was too eager to compromise and too shy about pushing GOP social priorities like opposition to abortion and support for school prayer.

So far, the displeasure is limited to a relatively small group of conservative activists, commentators, talk show hosts and a handful of the most conservative Senate Republicans. ``There is frustration out there,″ Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain said in a recent interview, ``but I think Senator Lott is still very highly regarded.″

Among conservative activists in Iowa, ``there is some concern about what is being accomplished in Washington right now,″ said Keith Fortman, the state’s GOP executive director. ``But most Main Street Republicans are not sophisticated in the sense of, `Is Lott doing enough?‴

Still, the criticism underscores the dual challenges the majority leader faces in running the Senate and seeking accomplishments with a Democratic president while at the same time asserting himself as a national Republican leader, perhaps with an eye on seeking the presidency himself.

Even as he plunged into marathon budget talks last week, Lott moved ahead with his plan to step back occasionally from his day-to-day responsibilities to offer his thoughts on broader issues facing his party and the country.

In his speech Monday, he will encourage a polite, internal GOP debate to pick from several proposals to dramatically overhaul the federal tax code. Several people involved in drafting the speech said Lott will suggest the party has become too defined by the specifics of tax relief, such as cutting capital gains taxes, and should reassert itself in the broader tax debate.

Similar speeches on education, foreign policy and defense issues are planned in coming months, and several of the Lott’s advisers are urging him to seek the GOP presidential nomination in three years.

This group includes Ed Rogers, a protege of the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater, and several veterans of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s 1996 campaign. ``Interested but noncommittal,″ was how one of these advisers described Lott’s reaction.

In ultimately winning the 1996 nomination, Dole was roughed up by rivals for his deal making as majority leader. Should Lott run, he undoubtedly would find himself in similar straits, with the lingering memories of Dole’s defeat fresh in the mind of GOP voters.

``The Congress is not a great place to run from at the moment,″ said New Hampshire GOP activist Tom Rath. ``He is trapped in a trap of his own making.″

As for his stewardship of the Senate, Lott faces criticism in the weeks ahead from conservatives who believe the budget agreement is too timid when it comes to tax cuts and too generous in accommodating Clinton’s spending priorities.

Beyond that, conservatives are stirring for votes on abortion and other social issues and anxious to see if Lott keeps his promises to them.

``We need to have votes on the issues that are most important to the coalition,″ said Blackwell, who voiced confidence in Lott despite recent disappointments.

David Hoppe, Lott’s Senate chief of staff, said critics outside of government often forget the necessity of compromise in dealings with a Democratic president.

``The American people elected us to deal with these problems,″ Hoppe said. In the case of the budget, he said, ``Is it perfect for Republicans? No. But it is a good, fair agreement, and worth it to the American people.

``If you do the right thing, that is good politics.″

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