Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) yesterday abandoned his job as Senate Republican leader, forced out by a national furor over racially charged remarks two weeks ago. Republicans said they intend on Monday to elect Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), a close ally of President Bush, to succeed Lott.
Lott's announcement came a day after Frist launched a campaign for the Senate's top leadership post, quickly drawing support from several influential senators. Within minutes after Lott's statement, Frist, who helped engineer the GOP takeover of the Senate last month, was the runaway favorite to be elected majority leader when Congress reconvenes early next month.
Shortly before Lott announced his decision, he called Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of his staunchest supporters, and asked for a candid assessment of his prospects, McConnell said in an interview.
"I suggested he step down immediately and make it effective January 6," the date set for a GOP conference to consider his fate, McConnell said. McConnell's message followed similar assessments from other colleagues, sources said.
There was "a steady accretion of sobering phone calls [to Lott] from his colleagues, telling him that the situation was dire and was not getting better and that time was not on his side -- time was his enemy," a Senate GOP aide said.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a Lott loyalist and current No. 3 party leader in the Senate, briefly considered a challenge. But he endorsed Frist, 50, after it became clear the Tennessean had more than enough support in the 51-member Senate GOP caucus.
McConnell, the party's new whip, earlier removed himself from speculation and endorsed Frist. Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), the outgoing whip, had done the same. Santorum said the caucus will elect Frist via a telephone conference call Monday.
Although many senators had expected Lott to step aside at some point, his announcement came without warning less than a day after his spokesman emphatically said Lott "will be the majority leader in the next Congress."
"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," Lott said in a terse statement that effectively ended his three-decade rise to power in Congress, including 6 1/2 years as Senate Republican leader. "To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful."
Lott triggered his downfall on Dec. 5, when he said at a televised event that the nation "wouldn't have had all these problems" if Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) had been elected president in 1948, when he ran on the segregationist Dixiecrat platform. Over the next two weeks, Lott, 61, apologized repeatedly for his remarks, appeared on Black Entertainment Television to swear fealty to civil rights, including affirmative action, and called colleagues to explain and apologize.
But nothing worked. African Americans seethed, conservatives called for his resignation and Bush sharply criticized him on Dec. 12 -- and then said nothing else publicly for a week.
White House officials said they were surprised by Lott's announcement. Bush called Lott after he learned of it, and issued a statement saying he respected "the very difficult decision Trent made on behalf of the American people." He called Lott "a valued friend and a man I respect."
Lott's decision drew a huge sigh of relief from many Republican officials and strategists. They feared that his continued presence as a high-profile leader would damage the party, especially with minorities and suburban women. His departure, and the fast-developing support for Frist, reduces the threat of a bloody intra-party battle when the 108th Congress convenes Jan. 7. The GOP will control both houses and hopes to give swift approval to key elements of Bush's agenda.
Several White House officials had quietly signaled that they preferred Frist as the new majority leader. That helped Frist with some senators but infuriated others, especially more senior members who resent White House interference with Senate affairs.
While Frist is as conservative as Lott on many issues, he has a smoother image. He is known largely for his work on health care initiatives, his self-funded medical missions to Africa and the reassuring role he played last year when letters laced with anthrax spores reached Capitol Hill.
As chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was instrumental in the Nov. 5 victories that enabled the party to regain control of the Senate.
"He is widely respected in our caucus and took us from a narrow minority to a narrow majority, and we're grateful," McConnell said. "He's a good listener. Maybe it's the doctor training. He has a good bedside manner."
Frist went out of his way to praise Lott, calling him an "effective leader . . . and close friend" who "always put concern for his family, country and colleagues first and demonstrated that today."
Lott's announcement made history in a way that was not in the political playbook for the proud, ambitious Mississippian, who first came to Congress as an aide to a Democratic House member more than 30 years ago: Lott is the first Senate leader of either party to step down because of controversy, according to Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
At home in Pascagoula, Miss., Lott avoided cameras and reporters yesterday. His wife, Tricia, handed out a written statement saying he would have nothing more to add. It concluded, "Please go home."
In his statement, Lott said he did not intend to resign from the Senate altogether, despite threats to that effect by Lott loyalists when they were trying to rally support. Lott's retirement would have allowed Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) to name a Democratic successor, changing the Republicans' 51 to 49 majority into a 50-50 split and making the GOP vulnerable to a defection that would put Democrats back in control.
Frist launched his campaign late Thursday and quickly won the support of Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who said many other senators were likely to follow his lead.
By early yesterday they did so, starting with statements of support from Christopher Bond and Jim Talent, both Republicans from Missouri. After Lott made his announcement, the flow turned into a deluge. Senators hailed Lott for his sacrifice but made it clear they welcomed Frist as their new leader.
Like McConnell and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), Bond told Lott he should step down. Bond said he talked with many Missourians and they were "deeply troubled" by Lott's Dec. 5 remarks. He said he told Lott to "make way for a new Senate Republican leader who is able to speak with a strong voice to Americans of all races."
Nickles and others had worked behind the scenes for several days to map out a face-saving "soft landing" plan, such as a committee chairmanship, to encourage Lott to step down. But no chairmen were willing to stand aside for him, and his resignation came with no strings attached.
A Republican involved in the maneuvering said Frist made his move "to stop the feeding frenzy," which he was convinced was damaging the party and Bush's agenda by the hour.
A Lott confidante said the senator thought he had 20 solid votes late Thursday, but by morning he was telling associates that he could count votes. Although Lott thought he might still win, he "realized it would be a dogfight," the confidante said. He did not blame Bush or Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, for his fate, the friend said.
An array of Republican officials said the turning point for Lott came Dec. 12, when Bush inserted a stern rebuke into a speech he was giving in Philadelphia. He said "recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country." For days afterward, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that Bush "does not think that Trent Lott should resign," but the president did not address that question.
An administration source said that during a preparation session for the remarks in Philadelphia, Bush dictated the harsh words. An aide suggested that Bush might add a statement saying that Lott should remain or did not mean what he said about Thurmond. Bush rejected the advice.
"When the president repudiated him so publicly and didn't soften it with any statement of support, everyone in town knew he was gone," a Republican source said.
Especially in the last several days, White House officials were at pains to avoid overt involvement, as a backlash built among senators who did not want Bush's meddling. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said Bush had ordered his senior aides to avoid influencing the process in any way.
Staff writers David S. Broder, Juliet Eilperin and David Von Drehle contributed to this report.