- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Senate Republicans will meet Jan. 6, the day before the 108th Congress convenes, to discuss the fate of party leader Sen. Trent Lott, who is under fire for his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
"They're going to go into a room, lock the door and hash this all out," said an aide to a senior Senate Republican.
Mr. Lott appeared on Black Entertainment Television yesterday to explain what he meant when he said at Mr. Thurmond's party Dec. 5 that if the then-segregationist "Dixiecrat" candidate for president had won in 1948, America "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."
Appearing on the show "BET Tonight With Ed Gordon," Mr. Lott said "those problems" was not a veiled reference to desegregation.
"I was talking about the problems of defense, of communism, and budget, of a government that sometimes didn't do its job," Mr. Lott said. "But again I understand that was interpreted by people the way it was, and I should have been sensitive to that."
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and one of the first to publicly call for a meeting, said yesterday the Jan. 6 meeting would give Mr. Lott "a fair opportunity to hear the views of his colleagues and to ask for support to achieve his goal."
Some Republican aides and strategists said the timing of the meeting suggests Mr. Lott will weather the crisis.
"The longer it goes the better chance he has of surviving," one Republican Capitol Hill strategist said. "This thing would be a done deal if they had an obvious replacement. The problem is it has the potential to be a bloody succession, and nobody wants to do that."
Mr. Lott's supporters were the ones pushing hardest for waiting until January, and aides said the timing gives Mr. Lott a chance to do what he does best: call senators one by one, ask for their support and remind them of all he has done for them.
Another factor pushing for a later decision, however, is that few Republican senators are in Washington, with several being abroad, and members were loath to meet without the whole conference present.
"January 6th is the earliest date that all of our Republican senators can meet because some are out of the country and unreachable," said Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican. "It is imperative for all of our 51 senators to meet and determine the course of action that will put us on track to deliver on our commitments to the American people."
Senate Republican aides said Mr. Lott could keep his job as long as "another shoe doesn't drop" and as long as the White House continues to give him at least tepid support.
In his BET interview, Mr. Lott told host Mr. Gordon that he couldn't help that he was born into a racist society in Mississippi, but said "there is change from the past."
"Who among us has not matured?" Mr. Lott asked, adding that he now "absolutely" and "across the board" supports affirmative action and favors the Martin Luther King holiday.
Mr. Lott said he had discussed creating "a task force of reconciliation" with Rep. John Lewis, a black Georgia Democrat, to make up for the "immoral leadership in my part of the country for a long time."
Asked whether he was part of that leadership, Mr. Lott answered, "Yes. I can't deny that."
Mr. Lewis, who was beaten by Southern policemen during the 1960s civil rights movement, said Mr. Lott was "sincere" in their conversation yesterday and he suggested that the Mississippi senator join him on an annual civil rights tour in March.
"I'd like to come down on his side, giving him a chance," Mr. Lewis said. "I'm not one of those calling for him to step down and give up his leadership post. We all make mistakes, we all make blunders. It's very much keeping with the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence to forgive and move on."
Nonetheless, a growing number of once-silently supportive Republicans have joined Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, who Sunday on ABC's "This Week" called for the party to consider ousting Mr. Lott.
An aide to Mr. Nickles said his boss "took a chance that he might have been left twisting in the wind" and is relieved that he is not.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, said the furor over Mr. Lott's remarks is "spreading like poison ivy" and threatens to "fracture" the government.
"Each Republican senator has a responsibility to deal with this," Mr. Hagel said. "I support bringing the Republican conference together as soon as possible. Republican senators must either reconfirm their confidence in Trent Lott's leadership or select a new leader."
Along with Mr. Hagel and Mr. Warner, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Conrad Burns of Montana and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas publicly support a Jan. 6 meeting.
"I fully support the decision of Republican senators to convene a conference to determine whether or not changes in our leadership are necessary to make clear to the American people that the GOP remains the party of Lincoln, both in word and in deed," Mr. McCain said. Failure to do so would "test the public's faith in our sincerity."
Mr. Burns said, "It's not fair for us to leave Senator Lott's future as Senate majority leader uncertain," adding that the party needs "closure very soon."
Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee is considered by many in his party as a strong candidate to replace Mr. Lott because of his good relationship with the White House and his work regaining a Republican majority as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Other possible replacements include Mr. Nickles, the outgoing assistant majority leader, who has considered challenging Mr. Lott in the past, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was elected assistant majority leader in November.
Mr. Frist's criticism of Mr. Lott, however, was softer than that of many others who took part in yesterday's Republican conference calls.
"My Republican colleagues and I are actively engaged in deciding what is in the best interest of the Senate as an institution and the country," Mr. Frist said. "I am confident a consensus will emerge, but no decisions have been made yet, and I have endorsed no specific proposal at this time."
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill would like nothing more than for Mr. Lott to survive this political storm.
An aide to a senior Democratic senator said Democrats "were salivating at the possibility that Lott would continue as majority leader."
"The more the Democrats think about it, they'd prefer that Senator Lott keep his position. He's damaged goods," the aide said.
A staffer for a senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said that if Mr. Lott survives as majority leader, it would make it easier to defeat the conservative agenda of congressional Republicans and Mr. Bush, especially the president's picks for the federal courts.
Meanwhile, a scheduled meeting between Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot and the Rev. Al Sharpton to discuss racial issues was canceled. An RNC spokesman said the meeting was unnecessary in light of Mr. Bush's remarks Thursday repudiating Mr. Lott's comments.
"The president outlined the Republican position and made it abundantly clear where the party stands, and that was that," spokesman Jim Dyke said.
Mr. Sharpton did not return calls for comment.
Stephen Dinan and Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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