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'Tis the season for brutal Senate infighting

Trent Lott rallies some colleagues to avow support, but others maneuver for his ouster.

A card read aloud at one of those ubiquitous Senate holiday parties this week shows two starfish commenting on the star impaled at the top of a Christmas tree: "Ouch. That must hurt." Everyone laughed.

"That must be Lott and Nickles," quipped someone in the mainly Democratic crowd. Everyone laughed harder.

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It may be time to be jolly in the malls, but it's a mean season on Capitol Hill. Leadership battles are always bruising, but the bid to oust Senate Republican leader Trent Lott is shaping up to be rougher than most, because it was so unexpected and the stakes are so high.

Republicans had hoped to spend the holidays planning the legislative honeymoon their president never had the first time around. Instead, they find themselves locked in a leadership struggle in the Senate.

"It's a very muted civil war," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "It's not the fight that they wanted at this time of the year."

As the battle heats up, GOP staffs are dusting off "opposition research" skills usually reserved for Democrats and turning it on colleagues. From off-the-cuff comments at obscure meetings to voting records on race, it's all grist in the widening battle to decide whether Mr. Lott stays or goes, and who might replace him.

Two weeks and five apologies after a racially sulfurous comment, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott insists he has the votes to hold on to his job. Supporters count a dozen senators who say they will back the leader at a Jan. 6 meeting on the controversy; Lott claims he has a majority of senators in the 51-member Republican caucus.

SO FAR, most of the voices calling for Lott's ouster have come from off Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island became only the second Republican senator to publicly suggest the need for a change in leadership. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing No. 2 in the Republican caucus, was the first.

The wild card in this struggle has been the White House. While the official word is that President Bush is staying out of the issue, his own withering criticisms of Lott's statements last week, as well as critical comments this week from Secretary of State Colin Powell, send a different signal - and opened the door for other Republicans with doubts about Lott to speak out.

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"There is nothing in the 1948 election or the Dixiecrat agenda that should have been acceptable in any way to any American at any time or any American now," Mr. Powell said on Wednesday.

Bush's statements have roused some Republicans in the Senate to remind the White House to stay out of what they see as an internal Senate matter.

"The biggest thing Lott has going for him is that an increasing number of senators think that the White House is in material breach of proper executive-branch etiquette," says one senior GOP congressional aide. "It's a fairly significant factor now. They just don't want to be seen as ... toadies."

Traditionally, the White House stays aloof from leadership fights on Capitol Hill, at least publicly. And lawmakers expect it. When Democrat Alben Barkley of Kentucky resigned as Senate majority leader in 1944, after a dispute with President Roosevelt, his colleagues promptly reelected him.

"It was a symbolic way to address the festering concern of who the majority leader speaks for: Is he the spokesman of the Senate to the White House or the intermediary between the president and the members of the majority party? Obviously, it's a little of both, but the perception of senators is that the leader must be with them through thick and thin," says Senate historian Richard Baker.

Yet, while the matter will be settled within the unique dynamics of the Senate itself, the power struggle is of keen interest to many influential onlookers.

Business groups worry that the leadership fight will draw attention away from the president's economic stimulus plan, which they want out of the gates as the first order of business in the new Congress. "Obviously, any kind of uncertainty in the Senate is going to inhibit [these plans], and we hope it will be resolved quickly," says John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable.