- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

A struggle to replace Trent Lott as the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate erupted yesterday when Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who briefly considered running against Mr. Lott in the wake of the November elections, said his colleague is "weakened" and unsuitable to continue as leader.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, regarded as a strong alternative if Mr. Lott resigns, told his colleagues they should be "big enough" to accept Mr. Lott's "profound apologies" and "move on."
"The president has accepted his apology. I don't see why we can't," Mr. McConnell said on ABC's "This Week."
Mr. Nickles told ABC-TV interviewers that Mr. Lott had been weakened "to the point that he may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans."
"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership, and I hope we have an opportunity to choose. Can [Mr. Lott] be effective? Can he campaign in places like Chicago? I don't want to squander our ability to get things done. We only have a short window this year."
Mr. McConnell, however, is said to have warned his colleagues privately that if Mr. Lott resigns as majority leader he might also resign from the Senate, noting that Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and Jim Wright, a Democrat, resigned from Congress when they were forced out as House speaker.
Should he resign from the Senate, Mr. Lott's replacement would be named by Ronnie Musgrove, Mississippi's Democratic governor.
Replacing Mr. Lott with a Democrat would leave the Senate deadlocked again, and if a Republican senator switched parties, the Democrats would regain control of the Senate. John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have been the subjects of such speculation.
"Leaders who are ousted tend to leave altogether. They don't stick around," Mr. McConnell told Newsweek magazine. But he told The Washington Post he believes Mr. Lott will remain majority leader: "I am confident he can and will weather the storm."
Mr. Lott has been at the center of a political firestorm for more than a week as a result of comments he made at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican. Mr. Lott has been roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for saying the country would have been better off if Mr. Thurmond had won his 1948 presidential bid as a candidate for the States' Rights Democrats, a party that defended segregation.
Some of the harshest criticism about Mr. Lott's comments to date came from President Bush on Thursday. Even Lott supporters who appeared on television news talk shows yesterday used terms such as "indefensible," "terrible" and "dreadful" to describe his remarks.
There has been speculation that Mr. Lott could be forced out as majority leader as a result of his gaffe. But until yesterday, no prominent Republican had made that recommendation. Mr. Nickles became the first.
On CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, called Mr. Lott a "very fine leader." But he said it is not fair to Mr. Lott, the Republican party or the nation to leave his fate unresolved.
Mr. Warner urged all Senate Republicans to get together and "exchange our views face to face as to how we wish to handle this situation."
"Only these 51 proud Republican senators can make the decision as to who should be our leader. I feel we should come together as a group and make that decision and put to rest, once and for all, this controversy," he said.
"This nation is at war. The buck stops with us," he said, adding that the "integrity of the U.S. Senate" is at stake.
"In fairness to Senator Lott, he's made a series of apologies. He's doing his best. Should we leave him dangling out there for another two weeks or so before we come back on January 7? I say no," Mr. Warner said.
Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," said he will not call a conference meeting to reconsider the election results.
"It's not under our rules to allow me to do that. The rules stipulate an election, and unless there's a vacancy there has to be a motion from the floor to do that, and I'm not going to make that motion," he said.
However, the Associated Press reported that under Senate Republican rules, a meeting of the rank and file must be called if five senators request it. Nickles spokesman Brook Simmons said Mr. Nickles had not yet asked other senators to support his call for a meeting to consider Mr. Lott's fate.
"Meet the Press" host Tim Russert noted that the Wall Street Journal on Friday included Mr. Santorum among a short list of Republicans it felt would be better leaders than Mr. Lott. Others cited, he said, were Mr. McConnell and incoming Majority Whip Bill Frist of Tennessee, the outgoing chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who has been praised for his efforts in returning Republicans to the majority. Mr. Frist reportedly has sternly rebuked Mr. Lott's comments but has not recommended that he resign.
Mr. Nickles also sharply criticized Mr. Lott in a conference call with other Republican senators Friday, but he said yesterday that he accepts his apology.
On NBC, Mr. Santorum said there "would not be a contest" between Mr. Lott and any of the challengers Mr. Russert mentioned. "Mr. Lott's our elected leader. We've already made that selection. We're going to move forward, and we're going to do so with a purpose that, prior to these remarks, probably we didn't have."
He said the Lott episode has given the GOP a "big wake-up call" about the need to rally around the president and "really be aggressive" on a policy of greater inclusiveness.
Mr. Santorum called Mr. Lott a "man of tremendous integrity, of deep faith, someone who believes all men are created equal, not just under the Constitution but more importantly, in the eyes of our Creator."
Mr. Santorum would not speculate on whether he would seek the top leadership post if Mr. Lott steps down. He said he is convinced that Mr. Lott will stay in his post.

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