Trent Lott Steps Down as Republican Senate Leader - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

Lott Steps Down, Tennessee's First Leading Candidate to Run GOP Caucus

Trent Lott Steps Down as Republican Senate Leader

December 20, 2002
Posted at: 11:30 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON - Bowing to pressure from his fellow senators and the Bush White House, Sen. Trent Lott resigned his position as Senate majority leader on Friday after his colleagues openly began lining up behind Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist.

"In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective Jan. 6, 2003," Lott said in a written statement. "To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate."

With Lott's departure, the only declared candidate for his post so far has been Frist, a close ally of President Bush. Frist, who made his candidacy known Thursday evening, had garnered public support from several senators before Lott announced his decision.

But Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also were considered possible rivals for the job.

The 51 GOP senators who will serve in the next Congress plan to meet Jan. 6 to decide who their next leader will be.

Lott's methodical resignation — a terse statement released from the office of Senate Republican leader here — culminated a weeks-long controversy over Lott's racially insensitive comments.

His decision amounted to a 180-degree about-face.

Earlier this week, Lott had vowed to stay and fight, saying that "I was elected by the people of Mississippi to a six year term. ... I have a contract and I'm going to fulfill it."

Lott's fall followed a tribute that Lott gave earlier this month at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

The Mississippian at the time hailed the venerable South Carolinian and said he thought the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had won his campaign for the presidency in 1948. Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat at the time, on a mostly segregationist platform.

One Republican official said that Lott's office had informed White House officials beforehand of his decision. Despite speculation that Lott would demand a committee chairmanship or some other consolation prize, this official said Lott was stepping down with no strings attached.

Lott, 61, has been the Senate GOP leader since 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., left the Senate to devote full time to his unsuccessful presidential bid.

At the Thurmond birthday party, Lott said: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."

The remarks drew immediate criticism from black leaders and Democrats. They were quickly joined by conservatives worried that the comments would create a distracting firestorm that would harm the White House's and GOP's efforts to advance their legislative agenda.

While Lott initially attempted to stomp out the controversy with a terse press release and telephone interviews on radio and television, it began to spin out of control after President Bush issued a forceful denunciation of his remarks last week.

Leadership elections, conducted by secret ballot, are notoriously unpredictable affairs in which promised votes fail to materialize and lawmakers' decisions are based on personal relationships, past conflicts and any number of unpredictable factors.

While Lott had gained expressions of support from several veteran Republicans, Frist's campaign work gives him a ready constituency — the eight newly elected GOP senators.

Frist, 50 and in his second Senate term, has worked closely with the Bush administration. A wealthy heart surgeon before coming to Congress in 1995, Frist has been a leading GOP voice on prescription drugs and other health care issues.

Hours before Lott's announcement, veteran Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., reversed field and endorsed Frist after initially saying he would stand behind Lott. homestate of Tennessee.

Bond said he "concluded that the current controversy has completely overshadowed our efforts to expand the American dream to all Americans. This is unacceptable." He said he told Lott that in a telephone conversation Thursday.

While Lott had initially gained expressions of support from several veteran Republicans, Frist's campaign work gave him a ready constituency — the eight newly elected GOP senators.

Frist, 50 and in his second Senate term, has worked closely with the Bush administration. A wealthy heart surgeon before coming to Congress in 1995, Frist has been a leading GOP voice on prescription drugs and other health care issues.

One senator who has spoken to Frist cautioned that Frist's candidacy could be hurt by a perception that he may be too close to the White House.

"They don't want a senator who's a yes man for the president and Rove over here," said the senator, referring to top White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Until now, Republican lawmakers, aides and lobbyists had said Frist was reluctant to seek the job. Besides being a political lightning rod for attacks by Democrats, the post would be extremely time-consuming, taking away from his pursuit of health issues and, perhaps, preparations for a White House run in 2008.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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