The Senate's current No. 2 Republican said Sunday that Sen. Trent Lott has been weakened by the controversy surrounding his racially insensitive comments and called for a new election for the majority leader job.
"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership. And I hope we have an opportunity to choose," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing GOP whip who nearly challenged Lott for leader in this fall.
Republican leader Lott, R-Miss., had no immediate reaction to the comments, which instantly added a new dimension to his struggle to survive the fallout from remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that touched on racial segregation.
At the White House, spokesman Taylor Gross said the administration does not react "to every statement put forth by every senator."
But by day's end, there was evidence of growing internal struggle among Senate Republicans.
Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the rank and file should meet to address the controversy, although neither man explicitly called for new elections.
At the same time, Lott's allies sought to undercut Nickles, circulating material designed to show the two men had voted alike on key civil rights issues and that the Oklahoman had long thirsted for the top leadership post. The material also included a fraternity magazine article quoting Nickles as speaking favorably about Thurmond -- but about the fact that he had children late in life, not his segregationist past.
While Nickles has served with Lott in the GOP leadership for several years, they have been rivals as well as colleagues. Nickles' statement appeared timed to blunt a Sunday broadcast offensive by Lott's allies seeking to lay the controversy to rest.
"I have a lot of confidence in him as the leader and as a senator. And I think we should not lynch him, we should give him an opportunity," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in a televised interview.
"I think he's going to continue to lead us, and I think he can be a very effective as our leader in the Senate," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC's This Week.
McConnell, elected to succeed Nickles as the No. 2 Republican leader, added that he had confidence in Lott's ability to "move forward with the president's agenda in the new Congress."
Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar this month when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket.
"And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either," Lott added in remarks at 100th birthday for the retiring South Carolina senator.
Lott's most recent apology came Friday, when he strongly denounced racism and segregation at a news conference in his home state, and asked for forgiveness and forbearance.
Lott also arranged a 30-minute appearance on the Black Entertainment Television for Monday, part of an effort to demonstrate his concern about issues of importance to blacks.
Lott's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said the senator was looking forward to appearing on the BET program "to discuss the serious issues of diversity, opportunity and race in America."
But Nickles' comments seemed likely to propel the Republican leadership drama into a new phase. A closed-door meeting of the 51 GOP senators in the new Congress must be called if five make a written request.
Warner said he favors a meeting, and Hagel said in a statement that he supports bringing GOP senators together as soon as possible. Lawmakers "must either reconfirm their confidence in Senator Trent Lott's leadership or select a new leader. ... In the interest of the Republican Party, the president's agenda and the nation this issue must be resolved quickly."
Alternatively, GOP senators are scheduled to meet privately on Jan. 8, the day after the new Congress is sworn in, and Nickles could raise the subject of leadership elections then.
Nickles' spokesman, Brook Simmons, said he did not know whether Nickles would run for leader if there were an election.
Simmons said Nickles told the White House on Saturday night of his plans to speak out, and informed Lott early Sunday.
In his statement, Nickles said he accepted Lott's apologies, but said: "This is bigger than any single senator now. I am concerned that Trent has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans."
Republican officials have expressed similar concerns in recent days, and strategists have bemoaned the likely impact of Lott's comments on Bush's efforts to improve on his standing among black voters. Bush won 9 percent of the black vote in 2000.
Privately, other Republicans have expressed similar concerns. Several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in a conference arranged by Lott's office on Friday night, Nickles and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., both raised questions about the long-term impact of Lott's comments on the party and the president.
Frist declined comment on Nickles' proposal.
Also weighing on the minds of Republicans are remarks by McConnell suggesting that Lott might resign the Senate if he were to lose his leadership post.
While the GOP scored enough gains in the November elections to hold a majority, they will have only 51 seats in January.
Should Lott resign, the Democratic governor of Mississippi would be in a position to name a replacement, potentially creating a 50-50 tie. At that point, the party switch of just one Republican senator -- similar to the one made by Vermont's Jim Jeffords when he became an independent in 2001 -- would return the Democrats to power.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.