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Conservatives say Lott hurts agenda

Should Trent Lott resign?  

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Conservatives say Lott hurts agenda

They're contending he should resign for their programs to advance

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 12/20/2002

WASHINGTON - Conservatives who expected President Bush and Republican majorities to push their social agenda on Capitol Hill say the firestorm engulfing Senate GOP leader Trent Lott is more than a distraction. They say the sudden focus on civil rights has jeopardized prospects for welfare reform, school vouchers, expanding federal grants to religious charities, and confirming conservative judges.

Ken Conner, president of the Family Research Council, predicted that it will be disastrous for the conservative agenda if Lott does not step aside.

If he does remain as majority leader, Conner said, ''those who would thwart our agenda will drape [Lott's remarks] like an albatross around our necks.''

Conner said Lott's off-the-cuff remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party have undermined the agenda of social conservatives by raising the suspicion that they are hostile to protecting or expanding civil rights and insensitive to matters of race.

''Lott's remarks, as well as his record, have helped to fuel the unhealthy stereotype that Southern, white conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists,'' said Conner, who was one of the first conservative activists to call on Lott to relinquish his leadership post. ''In a single stroke, he wiped away a lot of hard work and efforts on the part of conservatives to build their credibility.''

Many social conservatives already had mixed feelings about Lott, criticizing him for not pushing hard enough for a ban on human cloning in the last Congress. Some said he was too pragmatic in his dealings with Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader. Before the controversy erupted, Lott had assured conservative groups that he would bring their top priority, a bill to prohibit so-called partial-birth abortions, to the Senate floor early next year.

Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, said the greatest risk is that Lott will sabotage the conservatives' agenda and compromise their principles through his endorsement of affirmative action and his apology for voting against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday.

''What should be our litmus test for determining Lott's ability to lead is how committed he is to stick to conservative principles and not give in to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and the Democrats,'' Weyrich wrote in a commentary earlier this week.

If every issue is viewed through the lens of race and civil rights, Weyrich said, it could change the focus of the welfare law reauthorization next year from work, marriage, and abstinence education to increased funding. It could impede enactment of Bush's faith-based initiative, which has been targeted by civil rights groups because it would allow religious charities to obtain federal grants and contracts and practice hiring discrimination.

Expanding public school vouchers, another conservative agenda, could be undone by arguments that they would drain funds from urban public schools that primarily serve minorities and the poor. Democrats are also likely to renew their push for more funds to implement the new ''No Child Left Behind'' education law, which was aimed at raising the achievement levels of disadvantaged students.

One probable casualty, whether Lott leaves his post or not, would be a reconsideration of Judge Charles W. Pickering's nomination to a federal appeals court. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the nomination, and civil rights groups say that in the current climate, it is unlikely that the White House would want to fight the battle for the conservative Mississippi judge who civil rights groups vehemently opposed.

Advocates for ending affirmative action in college admissions say the White House may now be reluctant to join the plaintiff in challenging the constitutionality of the University of Michigan's affirmative action programs. The landmark case will be heard by the US Supreme Court next year, and the Justice Department has until Jan. 16 to decide if it will take sides or stay out of the case.

''If it writes a brief on behalf of the plaintiff, the White House risks headlines that say, `The administration is anti-civil rights,''' said Abigail Thernstrom of Lexington, an opponent of affirmative action. ''I will not blame the administration if it just feels right now that it cannot take that hit.''

Thernstrom, a Republican member of the US Civil Rights Commission, said she ''just felt sick'' when she heard Lott suggest on Dec. 5 that the nation would have been better off if Thurmond, who ran as a segregationist from South Carolina, had won the 1948 presidential election. The consequence, she said, is that Republicans who support civil rights will ''go wobbly'' on issues like affirmative action and school vouchers. ''Our job of getting the message across, that we are committed to racial equality, becomes much, much harder,'' she said.

It has also energized civil rights activists. Yesterday, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, an advocacy group, warned that a federal commission of mostly big-college athletic directors handpicked by the Bush administration was preparing to call for changes that would gut the enforcement of Title IX, the law that bars gender discrimination in education and high school and college sports.

''This is not just an issue about women playing sports,'' said Jocelyn Samuels, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, which is part of the coalition. ''The amount of attention Trent Lott has received demonstrates that the American public is sensitive to civil rights issues and attuned to protecting civil rights, and that includes gender equity.''

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is working with several other senators on legislation to protect affirmative action in higher education and strengthen other civil rights provisions, said that ''the president has a real opportunity now to improve the administration and the Republican Party's record on civil rights.''

Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Lott controversy has created ''a transformational moment'' and an opportunity not only to press a civil rights agenda, but to assess the records on race of politicians in both parties.

Mary Leonard can be reached at [email protected].

This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 12/20/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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