- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

Sen. Bill Frist said yesterday he has told colleagues he will challenge incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott if a majority of senators will back him, and as of last night he had picked up several endorsements.
"I indicated to them that if it is clear that a majority of the Republican caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role," Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said in a statement.
He becomes the first to announce publicly a challenge to Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, after the two-week furor that began after Mr. Lott praised Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for president, when the South Carolinian ran on a segregationist platform.
After Mr. Frist's statement, Virginia's two Republican senators announced that they would back the Tennessean and said others would do the same.
"I had encouraged Bill, if things were not working out well for Trent, to consider offering himself, and I'm glad to hear that he will be," Sen. George Allen said. "I don't mean to be derogatory toward anyone else, but I think we need to move forward in the most positive manner."
Sen. John W. Warner, the next chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also endorsed Mr. Frist's bid in a news conference at the Capitol last night.
"I intend to help Bill Frist in any way I can," Mr. Warner said after having met with Mr. Frist late yesterday. He also said Mr. Frist told him that he definitely will seek the nomination.
"He is very deferential to the majority leader, Trent Lott, as we all are. But we feel that this issue is much bigger than just votes," Mr. Warner said. "This is a nation at war. This is a president who needs the full and strong support of both houses of Congress under strong leadership in the respective chambers."
Mr. Warner said there is "fast-moving momentum building up" for Mr. Frist, though he said "at the moment, we're not trying to count the votes."
Mr. Lott however, reiterated last night, his intention to remain majority leader.
"Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott will be the majority leader in the next Congress," spokesman Ron Bonjean said in a statement. "He has a track record of loyalty, dedication and experience in shepherding President Bush's agenda for all Americans through the Senate."
Mr. Allen, in a phone interview with The Washington Times last night, predicted that there will be other senators following his and Mr. Warner's announcements.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, whose terms as assistant Republican leader were limited, also had been sounding out colleagues on a bid for leader, but the Associated Press reported yesterday that Mr. Nickles would support Mr. Frist's run.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, yesterday told a radio station in his home state that Mr. Lott's "ability as a leader dissipates on a daily basis." At his news conference last night, Mr. Warner said he had spoken with Mr. Inhofe and that the Oklahoman indicated his support for Mr. Frist.
Mr. Allen is slated to become the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), and Mr. Nickles is scheduled to become Budget Committee chairman. Mr. Inhofe is the incoming chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
With three committee chairman and the head of the campaign team apparently ready to support a challenger, one Republican source said he didn't see how Mr. Lott would survive until Jan. 6, when Republicans are scheduled to meet to hash out their leadership.
"Once there's somebody else out there, it's a matter of time," the source said.
In a separate interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Allen said he believed Mr. Frist already had the support of about 10 Republican senators, including Jim Talent of Missouri and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming.
Still, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, who has been one of Mr. Lott's staunchest supporters, told CNN last night, "I think it's a little premature to pick a new leader when we have a leader in Senator Lott."
Mr. Frist ran the NRSC for the 2002 elections and became a favorite of the White House not only for his success but also for the way he worked with the president's advisers.
Mr. Lott has said he has the support of a majority of Republican senators, and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has said he doesn't think the rules allow a new election unless Mr. Lott were to resign.
Far fewer than a majority of Republicans have made their stances public.
On Wednesday, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island Republican, became the first Republican to call for Mr. Lott to step down, though he did not specify who he favored to replace him. Mr. Chafee said Mr. Bush should ask Mr. Lott to give up the post.
Mr. Lott's multiple apologies have not stemmed the growing criticism from within his party. Mr. Lott's Monday interview on Black Entertainment Television has conservatives increasingly upset about Mr. Lott's criticism of his own voting record and his promise to support affirmative action in the future.
Mr. Inhofe said voting against a federal Martin Luther King holiday was a responsible conservative position, and he criticized Mr. Lott's apology for voting against it.
That sentiment is shared by other conservative senators and activists, who say Mr. Lott made promises on Black Entertainment Television this week that Republicans can't or shouldn't deliver on.
"The fact is that Senator Lott, I think, damaged himself, the party and the conservative movement in his appearance on BET, for the simple reason that he accepted the Jesse Jackson position that to be in favor of affirmative action is to demonstrate your lack of racism," said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Conservatives said Mr. Lott may have made it tougher for the administration to weigh in on two cases involving racial preferences at the University of Michigan. Conservatives had hoped the administration would file a brief opposing the use of preferences in university admissions.
"I'm worried about the preferences issue altogether. This makes it extremely difficult for the administration to come down in the Michigan case," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who wrote a column in Wednesday's New York Times sharply critical of Mr. Lott.
The White House said Mr. Bush's ability to enact his agenda would not be harmed if Mr. Lott retains his position as Republican leader. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration would work with Mr. Lott or anyone else who ends up in his job.
"Whoever is chosen, if there is an election, the president will work with whoever that is, including Senator Lott, to advance the agenda," Mr. Fleischer said.
Mr. Warner said last night that he has not been in contact with the White House and did not need to be because the majority leader post is a decision for senators to make.
Asked specifically whether Mr. Lott's continued presence as Senate leader would have "no effect" on the president's ability to enact his agenda, Mr. Fleischer replied, "Indeed."
Although the White House continued to take a hands-off approach to the Lott controversy, reporters did their best to broaden the flap to encompass Mr. Bush.
One reporter pointed out that the president's trip to Africa next month "just so happens to fall around the same time as" the Lott furor. "What do you say to African-Americans who are hurting because of this and wondering about the Republican Party and how they feel about African-Americans in the midst of going to Africa and not apologizing for slavery?" the reporter asked.
"The president views those concerns as justifiable," Mr. Fleischer said, adding that this was the reason for the president's public denunciation of Mr. Lott last week.
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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