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The deal-maker: remembering the days of U.S. fiscal solvency

It says something for the state of politics these days that Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., at the news conference announcing his plans to retire at the end of the year, said one of the proudest accomplishments of his 35 years of Republican congressional service was “when I was majority leader and Bill Clinton was president — we did produce a balanced budget for four of my six and a half years, and even a surplus a couple of years.”

Lord knows, fiscal solvency has not been the crowning achievement of the current administration, which on its watch has (1) piled up federal debt at a faster rate than any other administration in the nation's history, and (2) has increased that debt by more than 50 percent during its tenure.

The amount, should you want to jot it down, is a whopping $5.5 trillion ($3.3 trillion when President Bush took office).

But wait, that's just the “public debt.” Toss in “intragovernmental debt” and you get $9.1 trillion (as of 11/23/07). The national debt is increasing about $1.5 billion per day. In the fiscal year just ended, net interest on that debt was $235 billion (interest is the third largest item in the federal budget).

Sen. Lott's resignation launches a mad scramble by aspirants to the position. Election to Congress from Mississippi tends to be pretty much a lifetime job, and the seniority and power that have accrued to the likes of John Stennis, Jim Eastland, Jamie Whitten, Sonny Montgomery, Thad Cochran, and Trent Lott have served not only their state well in terms of federal projects and dollars, but the nation, too, through the key roles they have played in crafting agricultural legislation and pushing through appropriations for ag programs.

Lott cut his political teeth in a conservative Democrat environment, working four years following law school for Rep. William Colmer, D-Miss., whom he succeeded in 1972.

Although he was elected as a Republican and has spent his career in the House and Senate as a leader in that party, his negotiating skills and affinity for the art of let's-make-a-deal politics were more reminiscent of his Democrat predecessors and won him friends on both sides of the aisle.

“He is considered … one of the best deal-makers — a person who can find a way to a solution for even very controversial issues,” a Mississippi lobbyist said of him.

Even after the national furor resulting from his less than circumspect remarks at a birthday party for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, and his subsequent resignation from the majority leader post, he was handily re-elected by Mississippi voters to a fourth term and was elected by his colleagues as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, a position of considerable power, and also was elected minority whip.

After the Bush White House left him to twist slowly in the wind during the Thurmond controversy and was thought to have abetted his departure as majority leader, it is not without irony that now, in looking back on his long career, Lott mentions one of his proudest accomplishments occurring not during the Bush presidency, but rather in the Clinton years.

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