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updated 10/30/2006 6:48:20 PM ET 2006-10-30T23:48:20

Slam dunks are a rarity in politics. But when Republican and Democratic senators return to Washington for a lame-duck session -- after a dramatic election in which a half-dozen Senate races went down to the wire -- they will almost certainly make predictable choices in selecting their top leaders for the 110th Congress.

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Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., 64, the majority whip, has all but locked up the race to succeed retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Similarly, Senate Democrats are virtually certain to again elect Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., 66, as their top leader, a position he has held since 2005. Democrats are expected to meet behind closed doors on November 14, and Republicans on November 15, to elect their new slates of leaders by secret ballot.

On the Republican side
Even if Republicans get clobbered at the polls on November 7 and lose Senate control, it appears highly unlikely that they would turn to anyone other than McConnell to lead them. When pressed on why, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a former majority leader, said that the GOP ranks have little appetite for a brutal internecine battle.

"That takes real nerve" to wage a challenge for the leader's job, Lott said in an interview late last month. "You have to be mad at somebody. I am not sure you could fix blame for a loss [of Senate control] on some other person, somebody who may have been in the leadership.

"If we were a normal institution, we would say, 'Hey, that didn't work out too good. How do we change the dynamics here?' But we don't think that way," Lott added. "We are a political institution, and we are an institution of personalities, and inside a conference there is not a lot of vindictiveness. I don't look for [a challenge] to happen."

Others agreed with Lott that there will be no contest for the Republican leader post. "Mitch McConnell will be the next majority leader -- he has proven himself," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said in an interview late last month. "He has been a very strong whip. People trust his judgment. They trust his policy judgment, they trust his political judgment. I don't think there is much question about that at this time."

Likewise, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, when asked about McConnell observed: "He has done all the work. Everyone acknowledges that he deserves the position. I think he is a slam dunk."

The biggest question mark for Republicans at this point concerns the No. 2 post, that of party whip. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the Republican Conference chairman, is virtually certain to seek a promotion to whip if he survives the fight of his political life and wins re-election against Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

Whether Santorum, 48, wins or not in Pennsylvania, it is likely that any Republican seeking the whip's job will face a challenge. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., 66, has made it clear that he has his eyes on the post. He has quietly made the rounds of his colleagues, talking to each of them twice, to make his pitch that he is the one best suited to act as the lead supporting player to McConnell.

In an interview last month, Alexander noted that in the 2007-08 election cycle, 21 Senate Republican seats will be up, compared with 12 Democratic seats. Given that difficult political terrain, he says his colleagues will need a smooth-running leadership team. His implicit message is that the leader should not be distracted by the prospect of a whip who has designs on the top post. Alexander, a failed presidential contender, said he has no such ambitions.

"The thing we have to be careful about, in forming our leadership team, is to make sure we don't have two quarterbacks on the field at the same time," Alexander said. "I don't want to be quarterback. I want to help the quarterback. I want to center the ball, so to speak. And so, as our colleagues look over several people in our caucus who certainly have the ability to be whip, I think they will be looking for someone who can help give us the most cohesive team possible. We have 21 senators whose necks are on the line in 2008. We're going to have a narrow majority, and we are going to have a tough two years. We need a cohesive team more than we need anything else."

Alexander believes that his approach would be more productive than any rival's whose ambitions might put him on a collision course with the leader. Santorum could harbor such ambitions: He briefly flirted with a run for the top job after Lott stepped down as the incoming majority leader in December 2002 amid controversy over remarks about the 1948 Dixiecrat campaign of former Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., that were seen as racially insensitive. And Santorum's pugnacious, in-your-face style is a marked contrast to that of Alexander, who is low-key, isn't a camera hound, and is even self-effacing.

Alexander, a former Education secretary, suggests that his style might be especially well suited to improving relations between the White House and Congress. "I'd like to help make Pennsylvania Avenue a little more of a two-way street. I used to work in the White House congressional relations office in the Nixon administration, and we ran a lot of traps on Capitol Hill before we ever sent anything up here," he said. "We have great respect for our president, but I think we can help him improve his proposals and positions, the more our members have direct contact with him."

When advised of Alexander's arguments, Lott was unimpressed. "Some people are natural whips and some aren't," he said in the interview. "Some people [like Alexander] are policy wonks and others aren't. I think that argument is pretty weak."

Plenty of folks on and off Capitol Hill speculate that Lott himself might seek the whip's job. When asked about it, he demurred. At the same time, he didn't rule out such a run, saying, "A lot of it still depends on what happens in the elections.

"Look, if I didn't run, in the event there was a vacancy, somebody else will. Lamar will not get that seat unchallenged," Lott said. "I am very fond of him. I just don't think that is the right slot for him. He is a good policy guy. He's a good thinker, a good guy. There are a lot of places for different people around here."

So why might Lott, 65, seek the whip's post? The argument goes like this: He misses being a part of the leadership. As the only Republican ever elected to serve as whip in both the House and the Senate, his experience and skills, especially in helping to make the Senate run smoothly, are appreciated by his GOP colleagues. That he could potentially come back so quickly, after stepping down in 2002, shows his tenacity and the chits he has earned in recent years by his willingness to counsel colleagues.

And just as McConnell is respected as an institutionalist, so, too, is Lott. Both are seen as something of an antidote to Frist, who made his name as a heart-lung transplant surgeon, limited himself to two terms, and never pretended to have deep roots in the chamber.

For his part, Alexander had nothing but praise for Lott. "Trent has some unique skills," Alexander said in the interview. "He's already a leader. He has been majority leader. He speaks in our caucus. We all listen when he does. He's a good friend."

A Republican source, who has followed the Senate closely for years but declined to be identified, echoed a growing chorus off Capitol Hill in predicting that Lott might jump into the contest for whip, but only if Santorum loses re-election on November 7. Lott feels a sense of loyalty to Santorum, who stoutly defended him during the 2002 uproar. In the aftermath of Lott's resignation, Santorum stepped aside rather than seize the gavel of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, paving the way for Lott to be chairman.

Although the results of Santorum's race in Pennsylvania could shake up some leadership contests, at this time the rest of the Senate GOP leadership team seems likely to include Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., 64, assuming that he prevails in what has been a competitive race for re-election back home. Kyl, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, would move up to the No. 3 slot, Republican Conference chairman.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, 63, the GOP Conference vice chairwoman, who is breezing to re-election on November 7, will likely move up to become Republican Policy Committee chairwoman. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, 54, appears to be the favorite to become conference vice chairman.

Another new face, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., 48, will head the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- a daunting assignment that Hatch called a "gut-busting job." Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., had been a favorite to get that post but wound up taking a pass, citing his desire to spend more time with his teenage daughters.

Coleman, who is up for re-election in 2008, is clearly delighted with the prospect of Ensign heading the NRSC. "You are looking for people [who are skilled at] raising money -- that is very, very important -- and who have good political judgment and are aggressive," he said. "Ensign is an engaging personality. He is going to be very, very visible and do a great job." Coleman added: "I got a dog in this hunt. I have to get re-elected big-time. I'll feel very confident with Ensign heading the NRSC."

Lott was effusive about Hutchison, Cornyn, and Ensign, but he was especially lavish in his praise of Kyl, observing, "Jon Kyl is the most outstanding member of the leadership. He would be outstanding wherever he goes. I would be greatly frustrated and disappointed, and very uncomfortable, if Jon Kyl were not in the leadership."

On the Democratic side
For their part, Senate Democrats have shown no desire for an alternative to Reid, a low-key but toughly partisan leader who has won their loyalty by being sensitive to their needs. Although charges surfaced in October that Reid had failed to disclosure a land deal that reaped him about $700,000 in profits, he denied wrongdoing, referred the allegations to the Ethics Committee, and amended his financial reports to the panel "to more fully account" for the deal. At this point, he seems to have suffered little fallout with his colleagues.

Interviews with a number of Democratic senators throughout the past year have revealed consistent support for Reid. They credit him with keeping the party unified in its successful battle against President Bush's Social Security reform plan. They also invariably speak of Reid as a hard worker who paid his dues, including as whip for six years, when he spent countless hours on the Senate floor tenaciously defending Democrats' interests.

After Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., lost his seat in 2004, Reid quickly and methodically lined up enough support to take the top job, which he won without opposition. This time, after an election in which Democrats are expected to pick up seats, Reid's hold on the leadership post is likely to be even stronger.

No one doubts that Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., 61, will remain as Reid's whip; the two have developed a strong working relationship. "They complement each other and have become a good partnership," observed a Democratic source with strong insight into the leadership. "Durbin is very good at taking issues and making them resonate with the public, and he is good on the [Senate] floor and at message" development.

That they work well as a team is no surprise given their respective strengths. Durbin is very comfortable in front of the camera, delivers the party message crisply, and is focused on the big picture. Reid is more of an inside player and seems less surefooted with the media.

The one possible wrinkle on the Democratic side involves the No. 3 post, that of Democratic Conference secretary, which is held by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., 56. Stabenow, who has a steady lead in a potentially competitive re-election race back home, took the post after Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., stepped aside in 2004 and backed her.

Although the position has not been a launching pad to higher leadership jobs in recent years, some covet it as a way to influence debates in the party hierarchy. But a few Democrats grumble that Stabenow's lack of aggressiveness has hurt her effectiveness.

"Stabenow has not been given, nor has she earned, nor has she fought for, the respect that she needs from Reid and some of the others in the caucus," said a veteran Democratic source who asked not to be identified. "Her elbows are not sharp enough to do that." This source added that Stabenow is not seen as an "equal partner-player" among the leaders.

Still, if another Democrat makes a bid for the job, it would have to be one of the party's nine other female senators, this source said. So far, none of them has publicly stepped forward.

The other likely Democratic leader is a familiar face, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is in line for another tour as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman. Although at least one other Democrat is said to be interested in the post, Schumer, 55, is the favorite, having received very high grades for his handling of fundraising and candidate recruitment the past two years.

"Schumer is indefatigable," Hatch said. "I know people who give him money just to keep him away. Honest, I have heard people say [to him], 'Tell me how much I have to give if I never hear from you again.' "

Even as the leadership contests draw plenty of interest, Lott, in an interview last spring, sounded a cautionary note to any of those who might aspire to one of the jobs. "This is a tough place," he said. "Leaders in these two bodies of either party are in serious jeopardy of being defeated, disgraced, defrocked -- it's windy up there. I have been there. It is a lot more secure down here in the ranks."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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