- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

A key member of the Senate leadership insisted yesterday that incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott will keep his job, and Mr. Lott himself said he believes he has the votes to continue as Republican leader.
Sen. Rick Santorum, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said yesterday he "fully expects" Mr. Lott to remain majority leader because the Mississippian, and every other Republican senator, would have to approve of any new leadership votes.
"I'm confident that Senator Lott will be our leader," said Mr. Santorum in a conference call with reporters yesterday. "I have very little doubt about that right now."
Mr. Santorum called for a closed-door conference of Senate Republicans on Monday after it was clear that five senators wished to meet Jan. 6 to discuss how to handle the fallout over remarks Mr. Lott made in a tribute at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
But "the only way I am certain a new election could be called for is by unanimous consent," Mr. Santorum said. Such a scenario has virtually no chance of occurring because Mr. Lott would have to be among those agreeing to open his job to rivals.
"We have been checking all the [Senate Republican] rules," Mr. Santorum said. "There are no rules for a new election, so we are researching what other avenue would be available should such a request take place."
In an interview yesterday on ABC, Mr. Lott said he was digging in.
"I am the son of a shipyard worker. I have had to fight all of my life. And I am not stopping now," he said.
Mr. Lott told ABC News he had contacted nearly all of his Senate Republican colleagues in recent days and predicted a majority would back his drive to remain as incoming Senate majority leader.
Senate rules, such as the unanimous-consent requirement, work in Mr. Lott's favor, according to Amy Kauffman, a research fellow on elections at the Hudson Institute.
"The Republican Senate club is a club of gentlemen," Miss Kauffman said. "Toppling one of their own is not something they want to do, but it is something they might be faced with."
If a request to hold a new vote were to be made something Mr. Santorum said was "not on the agenda" the White House would not object.
White House sources said President Bush is concerned that Mr. Lott's Dec. 5 remark, which seemed to praise segregation, is canceling out the good will Republicans have tried to cultivate with minorities.
In the tribute to Mr. Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948, Mr. Lott said Mississippi was proud to have voted for the pro-segregation "Dixiecrat," and added that "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
But Mr. Lott, too, has been disappointed that the president has limited his words of support for the embattled senator to flat declarations by spokesman Ari Fleischer that the president "does not think Senator Lott needs to resign."
"Lott took it very personally that the president did not stand behind him," a Republican staffer said.
Mr. Fleischer reiterated yesterday that Mr. Bush will not intervene on "anything these senators may or may not do or call for" at the Jan. 6 meeting. A clear presidential endorsement of Mr. Lott, after days of solicitation from the press, has been refused.
If Mr. Lott is forced out of his post, the field of candidates to replace him, Senate Republican sources say, is down to just three serious contenders: Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Bill Frist of Tennessee and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Mr. Santorum said yesterday he was "not in the running" for Mr. Lott's job.
Because of term limits that are part of the Republican rules, Mr. Nickles was forced to step down as assistant Republican leader at the end of the last Congress. Once Mr. Lott's remark caused a furor, Mr. Nickles was the first senator to publicly call for a caucus to discuss the Mississippian's future.
Republican Senate aides said Mr. Nickles probably does not have enough support to win himself, but said he might be trying to clear the field for Mr. Frist.
Senate aides say Mr. Frist is seen as the White House's choice if Mr. Bush decided to push Mr. Lott out an act that would seal the Senate leader's fate.
Mr. Frist has risen rapidly through the ranks since entering the Senate in 1994. A heart-lung transplant surgeon, Mr. Frist gives the Republicans a respected voice on health care issues, often a strength of the Democrats.
He especially shined during the anthrax mail scares that gripped the Capitol last year, a Senate source said, and is considered an authority on another hot topic: biological warfare.
Mr. McConnell, the incoming assistant majority leader, has spoken publicly in support of Mr. Lott and appears unlikely to abandon him, Senate Republican aides say. But if the outspoken conservative did try to rise to the top slot, his staunch opposition to campaign-finance reform laws a popular issue among liberal-leaning Republican senators might hurt his candidacy.
Meanwhile yesterday, MSNBC played a tape where Mr. Lott is heard saying of Mr. Thurmond, "He should have been president in 1947, I think it was," as the South Carolina lawmaker, then Senate president pro tem, signed and made official the Senate's approval of defense legislation.
A Lott spokesman told the cable network that the tape, from Oct. 19, 2000, proves Mr. Lott was praising Mr. Thurmond for his anti-communist and pro-military views in 1948 and not his segregationist platform, which Mr. Thurmond has since repudiated.
Aides close to Republican leaders say Mr. Lott has plenty of time to either wait for this controversy to blow over or stamp out competition.
Mr. Santorum is optimistic about Mr. Lott's future.
"Trent Lott has had strong support from Day One in the Republican caucus," Mr. Santorum said. "I think his support is as strong today as it was a few days ago. I'm more and more convinced that Senator Lott should stay."

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