President Bush has decided not to intervene to save Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) after concluding he has become an albatross to the party and no longer has any chance of surviving as Republican majority leader, administration sources said yesterday.
The White House had hedged about Lott for nearly a week. Yesterday, after Republicans scheduled a vote that could lead to Lott's ouster, administration officials said Bush would not intervene. A Senate aide working to save Lott said Bush's continued silence could amount to a death sentence.
"The president is allowing the process to work itself out in a way that will seem natural and doesn't have a lot of fingerprints on it," a senior Republican official said. "When the inevitable happens, the president can be in a position where he hasn't coerced the process but also hasn't stood by someone who will create problems."
Republicans close to Bush said White House officials fear that the prolonged attention to Lott's racially divisive comments at a recent birthday party could have a devastating effect on party efforts to reach out to minority voters and may make it harder for Bush to win the trust of moderate Democrats for key votes on his agenda.
Another Republican said Lott "has become a walking pinata for Democrats" who would undermine "all the work the president has done to try to eliminate this perception of the party." A third Republican source said White House officials had concluded that Lott's survival was "outside the realm of possibility right now."
"He was not what a forward-looking GOP wanted even before this, but his weight has become insupportable," the source said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer did not directly spurn Lott yesterday. But asked several times to repeat an endorsement of Lott as majority leader, Fleischer noted that Bush made clear last week "that he found the remarks to be offensive and repugnant."
"Yes or no -- can you say whether the president wants Senator Lott to remain as majority leader?" a reporter asked.
"I go right back to everything that I said last week about the topic and the president's focus on improving race relations throughout America," Fleischer said.
Fleischer said he had not changed his position. "The president does not think he needs to resign," he said at his televised briefing. "I repeat what I said last week, what I've said every day."
By reviving unwanted characterizations of the Republican Party as hostile to civil rights, the Lott controversy threatens a variety of items on Bush's agenda. One possible casualty is Bush's desire to replace race-based affirmative action programs with race-neutral selection processes. Opponents of Bush's "faith-based" plan to boost religious charities have already renewed complaints that Bush would weaken civil rights measures preventing hiring discrimination.
Republican sources said Bush also may feel more pressure to support tax cuts favoring lower-income Americans. And a number of Bush's judicial nominees have mixed records on civil rights that Democrats will seek anew to exploit.
Democrats point out that Charles W. Pickering, whose appellate court nomination was rejected by Senate Democrats in September, helped a cross-burning defendant and was hostile to civil rights claims. Democrats also point to an article Pickering wrote as a law student suggesting ways to strengthen Mississippi's law forbidding interracial dating.
A week after Lott's Dec. 5 remarks at a centennial celebration for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Bush rebuked the majority leader but authorized aides to say he should not resign. Lott would have to save himself without White House help, GOP officials explained at the time.
That is the only time Bush has personally spoken about the issue. "Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," Bush said.
A challenge materialized on Sunday with a call by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) for a leadership vote. Nickles telephoned Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, about his plan on Saturday and Rove did not try to stop him, sources said. Officials close to the White House said they believe Rove's plan is for Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to use the opening provided by Nickles to win election as majority leader.
The officials pointed out that Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon, has made a specialty of health care issues, and the creation of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare patients is planned as one of the pillars of Bush's State of the Union address next month.
White House officials tried to discourage the impression that they were orchestrating Lott's downfall. Fleischer said the call by Nickles to Rove "was described to me as a notification call and nothing more."
Despite persistent efforts to persuade minorities to drop their hostility to the Republican Party, Bush has winked at the more racially angry politics of the South. During the campaign, he spoke at South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating. During a primary debate in South Carolina, he refused repeatedly to say whether the Confederate flag offended him.
"I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue. It's the people of South Carolina's decision," Bush said to cheers from the local crowd.
A Bush supporter, Richard Hines, helped to doom Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) challenge to Bush in South Carolina by sending out 250,000 letters suggesting McCain was insufficiently supportive of the Confederate flag.
The flag issue returned indirectly in last month's midterm elections. Analysts said Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia was voted out of office in part because of his efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the state's flag. The Republican winner, for whom Bush campaigned, promised to hold a referendum on the state flag.
During Bush's presidential campaign, he issued a statement from Thurmond invoking his 1948 campaign. It came after Democrat Al Gore compared himself to Harry Truman. "Mr. Gore, I knew Harry Truman. I ran against Harry Truman. And Mr. Gore, you are no Harry Truman," read the Thurmond statement from Bush's campaign.
When asked about the segregationist campaign, with its opposition to civil rights, Fleischer, then the campaign spokesman, said that was not relevant. "We are in a day when people make light of their past," he said then.
That issue produced little of the controversy of Lott's direct endorsement of Thurmond's '48 campaign, and Lott was less successful in brushing off the matter as humor. "This was a lighthearted celebration of the 100th birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond," Lott said in his early explanation.
Senior members of Bush's administration have also been involved in racially charged battles. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft led the fight to kill the federal judicial nomination of Ronnie White, a black state Supreme Court judge from Ashcroft's state of Missouri.
The president also has rankled the civil rights movement by avoiding traditionally liberal groups.
Asked earlier this year about his civil rights record and his decision not to meet with the NAACP, Bush replied that his secretary of state and national security adviser are black.
"Let's see," he said. "There I was, sitting around the leader with -- the table with foreign leaders, looking at Colin Powell and Condi Rice."
In yesterday's briefing, Fleischer was asked about Bush's lack of appearances before civil rights groups. "I just dismiss the premise of the question," Fleischer said.
Staff writers Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.