- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said yesterday that Congress has come to a standstill because of uncertainty over the next president, and he criticized the Bush campaign for running a weak race in Florida.

"Organizationally, they should have done a better job," Mr. Lott said in an interview with The Washington Times. Republican nominee George W. Bush "should have won Florida by a comfortable margin. Maybe they got overconfident."

The Mississippi Republican, faced with the loss of at least four of his party's seats in the Senate, including one in Florida, predicted a "different atmosphere" of bipartisan achievement in the chamber next year. He said he does not expect a challenge to his leadership post when the Senate returns in two weeks.

Mr. Lott said he has watched the presidential vote recounts in Florida with concern this week because he believes Democrats "are involved in a process to try to take the election away from George W."

But he also said he believes the Bush campaign never should have allowed Florida, where Mr. Bush's brother Jeb is governor, to be a close contest. Asked if he faults Jeb Bush, Mr. Lott said, "No, I think it begins at the top."

"I'm not trying to fix the blame," he said. "I think that overall the Bush campaign ran an incredible campaign. But the fact remains, it's dead even in Florida and I wish we could have avoided that. I went down twice [to Florida] for [Republican Senate candidate] Bill McCollum… . I could have done more, would have done more, if anybody had asked. But now, I can't count the votes."

The uncertainty over the next administration has put on hold congressional action on several issues in the final fiscal 2001 appropriations, including a tax-cut package and Medicare reform, Mr. Lott said. After consultations with President Clinton and members of both parties in the House and Senate, he said, the consensus was to adjourn until the week of Dec. 5.

"That way we surely will know who's president by then, hopefully," Mr. Lott said. "What we do with some of these issues clearly will be affected by who's president."

In addition to the Florida seat of retiring Sen. Connie Mack, Republicans lost Senate seats last week in Delaware, Michigan and Missouri.

Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington state is clinging to an advantage of about 12,600 votes over Democrat Maria Cantwell, which would give Republicans a 51-49 edge in the Senate next year.

Mr. Lott said neither he nor Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, head of the Senate Republicans' campaign arm, is responsible for the narrowing majority. "I don't know how you can fix blame on any one senator or on Senator McConnell or on me," he said. "The Senate reflects what has happened all across the country. The presidency, the House, the Senate and the state legislatures are right down the middle."

The Republican losses intensified speculation that Mr. Lott's leadership job might be in jeopardy. Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, is said to want the job, but Hagel spokesman Deb Fiddelke said yesterday that Mr. Hagel "has no plans to run for any leadership position at this time."

Asked about possible challenges to him, Mr. Lott said: "I'm not aware of any. I can't say that there won't be. I hope there won't be."

He said the nearly even balance of power in the Senate could produce results next year on defense spending, tax cuts, education reform and prescription drug benefits.

He said of this year's partisan gridlock in the Senate: "That's behind us now. We're going to have a different number, a different president, a different atmosphere… . No matter who becomes president, we're going to have to get this thing done. We may get more done than anybody would have ever believed."

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