- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

Sen. Trent Lott resigned as Senate Republican leader yesterday, bowing to pressure over racially charged comments he made two weeks ago and clearing the way for Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee to assume the leadership.
The change caps a controversy that grew far beyond Mr. Lott's initial comments and became too much of a burden for Senate Republicans and the Bush administration to carry into next year.
"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," Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, said in a statement released by his office late yesterday morning.
Mr. Lott, who until Thursday night had defiantly predicted he had enough support to remain leader, said he will not give up his Senate seat, meaning Republicans still will maintain control of the chamber with 51 seats.
Mr. Frist announced Thursday evening he would run for leader and immediately received the support of a number of key Republicans. Then, after Mr. Lott resigned, support came from all quarters so much so that Republicans now plan to hold a conference call Monday to elect Mr. Frist, rather than wait until a scheduled Jan. 6 meeting.
Mr. Frist, 50, a Harvard-trained heart surgeon, was elected to his second term in 2000. He was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with recruiting and electing Republicans to the Senate, for the Nov. 5 midterm elections. In that role, he became a favorite of the White House both for his style and for his success in helping President Bush and the Republicans capture control of the chamber.
Despite those ties, the White House stressed that it never publicly called for Mr. Lott to resign, though officials had privately said he had become a liability. Mr. Lott this week faced newspaper reports that anonymous White House aides were actively working to undermine his position.
Republicans said Mr. Lott's resignation draws a clear line for the party, and for the nation.
"This is not an incidental moment. It is a historic moment when you look at the chronicles in the history of the United States Senate," said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, who was one of the first to endorse Mr. Frist. "This is a day that the United States Senate, with Trent Lott's resignation, has buried graveyard dead and gone the days of discrimination and segregation."
The majority leader is the public face for Senate Republicans, and controls the flow of legislation in the Senate, selecting which bills to take up and when. That allows him enormous bargaining power, and usually brings dividends to his home state in terms of federal funds and projects.
Leadership ousters are somewhat common in the House, but have never happened in the Senate. Only two Senate majority leaders have ever stepped down while planning to remain in the Senate, and both of them did so willingly, in order to take the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee: Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, in 1989, and Sen. Styles Bridges of New Hampshire in 1953.
It was not clear whether there would be a "soft landing" for Mr. Lott, meaning another leadership position or committee chairmanship. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, said he hoped they could find some slot for Mr. Lott in recognition of his service and his sacrifice in stepping down.
But nothing had been worked out by yesterday afternoon, and there was a sense among some Senate aides that Mr. Lott had lost his chance to negotiate for a leadership slot by waiting until an heir was already apparent.
Mr. Frist yesterday praised Mr. Lott in a statement, but did not address his own bid for leader.
"I know that Trent's decision to step aside as majority leader was a difficult one for his family and for him personally," Mr. Frist said. "He has always put concern for his family, country and his colleagues first, and demonstrated that today."
The president, in a statement read by a spokesman, called Mr. Lott a "valued friend" and lauded "the very difficult decision Trent has made on behalf of the American people."
Mr. Lott touched off the furor on Dec. 5 at a 100th-birthday tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, when Mr. Lott said he was proud Mississippi voted for Mr. Thurmond for president in 1948, when the South Carolinian ran on the segregationist "Dixiecrat" platform.
"If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years," Mr. Lott said.
Initially, there was only moderate outrage even Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, when first asked, said he accepted Mr. Lott's explanation that it was a misstatement.
But momentum for Mr. Lott's ouster began to build on Dec. 10, when members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed outrage not only at the remarks, but also at Mr. Daschle for giving Mr. Lott a pass.
Almost immediately, House and Senate Democrats began to call for Mr. Lott to step down as leader, and for Mr. Bush to publicly rebuke Mr. Lott. Mr. Bush obliged last week, calling Mr. Lott's remarks "offensive," though White House aides also said the president did not think Mr. Lott should resign.
During the two weeks, interest groups questioned Mr. Lott's record on civil rights and reporters dug up similar remarks Mr. Lott had made about Mr. Thurmond.
What may have been the final straw, though, was Mr. Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television on Monday, when he endorsed affirmative action "across the board" and criticized his own vote against creating a federal Martin Luther King holiday.
Those positions outraged conservative supporters of his, who said Mr. Lott could no longer lead if he was going to abandon conservative principles in order to try to save himself.
Democrats used Mr. Lott's resignation as a chance to tweak Republicans further. Mr. Daschle called on the new Republican leader to "confront the Republican Party's record on race, and embrace policies that promote genuine healing and greater opportunity for all Americans" and the Congressional Black Caucus, made up of about three dozen Democratic members of the House, issued a similar challenge.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe issued a statement calling on Mr. Frist to explain some questionable campaigning tactics they say Republicans used in black neighborhoods in Louisiana's special election last month, during Mr. Frist's tenure at the Republican campaign committee.
Amy Fagan and James G. Lakely contributed to this report.


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