Trent Lott, the former senate majority leader from Mississippi, made news last summer when he said this of incoming tea party-backed senators: “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.” Lott’s words have since been held up as evidence that the Republican establishment in Washington is corrupt and out of touch – as case made most recently by Sen. Jim DeMint, in a widely-read op-ed that ran in Wednesday’s Wall St. Journal.
Now Lott says that his words have been misconstrued. In an interview with The Daily Caller, Lott says he meant that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell should “reach out” to the soon-to-be freshmen, including the six Republicans elected to the senate with tea party assistance.
Lott sought to downplay the chasm between the GOP and the tea party-backed newcomers, saying McConnell and other Republican leaders are “going to be wanting to do what the tea party people wanted….this is going to be an absolute love-in.”
“It’s unfortunate that [DeMint] used the word ‘co-opt.’ What I was really trying to say is more ‘cooperate,’ and that is going to have to come both ways, from both the Republican leadership and from the new members,” Lott said.
“Instead of the word ‘co-opt,’ I would advise: reach out,” Lott said.
In his op-ed, DeMint warned the incoming tea party-backed senators that “co-option is coercion” and offered a series of steps that would limit the leverage GOP leaders could hold over the freshmen.
The advice included not requesting earmarks, hiring conservative staff, to beware of leaders dangling enticing committee assignments and to not let reelection become “more important than your job.”
“Washington operates on a favor-based economy and for every earmark, committee assignment or fancy title that’s given, payback is expected in return. The chits come due when the roll call votes begin,” wrote DeMint.
Though DeMint is not challenging Mitch McConnell’s leadership slot, his op-ed is the latest signal he will seek to join with the incoming freshmen to vigorously challenge the GOP leadership on individual issues.
Six tea party-affiliated or otherwise strongly conservative Republican outsiders won senate seats last night. They are: Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Mike Lee in Utah and Rand Paul in Kentucky.
They will join DeMin, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana on the conservative flank of the Senate, and some moderate Republicans are fearful. “Dude, I’m terrified. These people are f***ing nuts,” a moderate GOP House aide told TheDC in early September.
Under attack from DeMint, Lott also sought to burnish his conservative credentials.
“I just want to remind everybody. I’ll put my conservative voting record up against any of ‘em. I was voting conservative before a lot of these people were born. So, I don’t appreciate having my credentials questioned as a conservative,” Lott said.