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David Vitter ORG XMIT: BAT1510242153010448

Even the people who don’t like him tend to acknowledge that former U.S. Sen. David Vitter has many talents. One of them is an ability to reinvent himself.

Vitter burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s as the state House’s self-appointed ethics cop. During that period, he was quick to castigate fellow politicians for any hint of questionable dealing — not just Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards but also his fellow Republicans — which made him as unpopular in the Capitol as he was popular in his Metairie district.

During his long stint in Congress, Vitter survived a prostitution scandal by fashioning himself as a conservative warrior, particularly against President Barack Obama. More surprisingly, he recast his own role in state politics from afar by applying his strategic acumen, and hardball tactics, to the task of party building. Vitter recruited GOP legislative candidates, helped them raise money and craft messages, and threatened conservative Democrats with potential opponents unless they flipped, which many did. The payoff came when Republicans took over majorities in both houses of the Louisiana Legislature.

But it all fell apart in 2015, when Vitter turned his harsh tactics against two Republican rivals for governor, Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle. Vitter survived the brutal primary fight among the three to face Democrat John Bel Edwards, but by then the bloom was off. Several factors probably contributed to Edwards’ win, but one was surely the bad blood with Dardenne and Angelle, neither of whom endorsed Vitter.

He’s far less visible these days, but those following Washington politics are now getting a look at Vitter 3.0. Or maybe call it his Moscow on the Mississippi phase.

Vitter declined to run for re-election in 2016, and like many former members of Congress, he quickly signed on with one of those Washington firms that charge a high price to try to influence policymakers. Not long into his tenure at Mercury Public Affairs, he found himself in the middle of a big international controversy.

Vitter is part of what The New York Times has deemed “a sophisticated multimillion-dollar lobbying and legal campaign” to convince the government to remove sanctions on companies connected to a Russian aluminum oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin — as well as a history of doing business with Paul Manafort, the now-convicted former Donald Trump campaign chairman. Oleg Deripaska, who is suspected of having ties to organized crime in his country, has promised to give up control of these businesses, although the details of just how much are in dispute. The sanctions were imposed in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Records show Vitter met with administration officials and encouraged foreign ambassadors in Washington to ask federal officials to ease sanctions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks disclosures of federally-registered foreign agents. And indeed, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin came out in support of that position.

But among Vitter’s fellow Republicans in Congress, that’s not the end of the story. A Senate effort to block the move fell short of the requisite 60 votes, but 11 Republican senators voted to keep the penalties, including John Kennedy, the Louisiana senator who won Vitter’s old seat with his support.

The House later took a vote objecting to the new policy, which passed with full support from Democrats as well as “yes” votes from 136 Republicans. The House vote has no practical effect, but it does put Louisiana U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise, the minority whip, and Garret Graves on record supporting sanctions (two other Louisiana Republicans, Ralph Abraham and Clay Higgins, voted no, while Mike Johnson didn’t vote).

There’s now word that the Senate could take another look, in light of an explosive New York Times report that the arrangement for Deripaska to cede control may have been “less punitive than advertised.” Even before the story was published, Kennedy told CNN  he suspected as much when he cast his vote.

"I have grave concerns about Mr. Deripaska," Kennedy said. "I understand he says he's given up his majority of the stock ... but you don't have to own the majority of the stock to have influence over the people of the company."

It’s not hard to envision Vitter raising such concerns, once upon a time. But then, that was at least a couple of reinventions ago.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.