Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.) fought ardently to save his post yesterday, picking up key endorsements even as some senior GOP senators privately discussed asking him to step down before Christmas.
With Republican senators set to consider his fate on Jan. 6 at the latest, Lott said he is confident he can win in the only forum that matters -- the 51-member GOP Senate caucus. While his support seemed to erode in places, several Republican senators broke their silence and came to his defense.
Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), the incoming Appropriations Committee chairman; Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.); and several others are publicly backing the embattled Mississippian after staying publicly quiet for days. Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News he plans to "defend my leader" and fight to make sure he "stays as our leader."
Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), the third-ranking leader and a Lott ally, told reporters that Lott will prevail.
Lott ignited the controversy Dec. 5, when he said the nation would have been better served if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, when he ran as a segregationist. Lott made nearly identical remarks in 1980, and videotapes aired yesterday showed that he gave more vague praise to Thurmond's campaign at a 2000 Capitol Hill ceremony.
In an interview last night, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Lott can weather the storm if White House aides, conservative commentators and GOP lawmakers quit piling on. "I have a sense there are a lot of senators who could go either way on this matter, ultimately," Specter said.
Lott will need 26 votes to prevail if a new leadership election is held next month. Most senators are refusing to state their position.
Still, many senators think Lott will be forced out. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and other senior senators yesterday privately discussed ways to ease Lott out of his leadership job before year's end to put the controversy behind the party, Republican sources said.
They said Nickles and others were working to arrange a "soft-landing scenario" to encourage Lott to step down under face-saving conditions, which could include another prestigious Senate office.
Senior GOP senators, including John Warner (Va.), spent several hours on the phone yesterday discussing Lott's fate. There were also private discussions about whether party elders -- perhaps former GOP Senate leaders Robert Dole and Howard Baker -- should approach Lott soon to ask him to step aside. Bush administration officials again pointedly refused to intervene, and let it be known they would like to see Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.) or another Republican senator take over.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), soon-to-be chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, told the Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce yesterday, "this situation should be and very well may be resolved" before the scheduled Jan. 6 meeting. He did not say whether Lott should be replaced.
Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) issued a statement saying, "There is now a substantial question as to whether Senator Lott has the capacity to move [the Republican] agenda forward."
If Lott must give up his leadership post, many Republicans want to persuade him to stay in the Senate.
"What they're seeking is a soft-landing scenario that ensures that [Lott] remains prominent and responsible and yet the [GOP] conference is about to move forward," a source close to the situation said.
The source described the conversations as "very embryonic," but said senators were already talking about a variety of options, including offering Lott a committee chairmanship or creating a new leadership job for him. Among the committee chairmanships under discussion were budget, finance and intelligence, although there might be problems persuading other senators to step aside. Some Lott allies have said the senator might resign altogether if he loses the leadership job. That would allow Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) to appoint an interim Democrat until an election is held. Under Mississippi law, a resignation by Lott before Jan. 1 would trigger a special election within 90 days. A resignation after Jan. 1 would prompt a special election in November.
A Republican senator supporting the effort to find what he called a "graceful way out" for Lott said it stems from a belief that Lott cannot get the 26 votes needed to prevail. "He's got to get out of here with some dignity and respect," the senator said.
No Republican has openly challenged Lott, although Nickles is considered a likely candidate and Frist is talking with numerous members about the party's future. Frist is not eager to run but has not ruled it out, according to people close to him. Other potential candidates include Lott allies Santorum and Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Yesterday, TV networks aired a third example of Lott seeming to suggest that Thurmond (R-S.C.) should have been elected president in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket, although his remarks were somewhat vague. At an Oct. 19, 2000, signing ceremony for a defense authorization bill, Lott could be heard talking with a guest as Thurmond signed the document.
"Now this is a famous signature right there," Lott said. "He should have been president in 1947, I think it was." Aside from misstating the year of Thurmond's campaign, Lott did not add -- as he did in his remarks in 1980 and two weeks ago -- that the nation would have avoided unspecified problems if Thurmond had won.
MSNBC and C-SPAN yesterday released copies of coverage of the bill-signing event.
Lott's office did not respond to requests for comment on the remarks in 2000. MSNBC reported that Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean said the comments bolster the senator's contention that his praise of Thurmond is related to Thurmond's support of a strong military and his anti-communism, rather than for his better-known campaign for racial segregation in 1948.
Santorum said yesterday: "Senator Lott's comments in the context of a defense authorization signing ceremony sheds important insight into the ways in which he knows and respects Senator Thurmond and his contribution to the country."
In an interview with ABC News yesterday, Lott said he will fight hard to keep his leadership post. "I'm a son of shipyard worker from Pascagoula, Mississippi," he said. "I have had to fight all my life, and I'm not stopping now. . . . I think I need to work through this with everybody that's involved, including my colleagues. They have a right to tell me how they feel and what they suggest."
Staff writer Helen Dewar and researchers Brian Faler and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.