WASHINGTON – Whether Trent Lott stays or goes, Democrats and civil rights groups see his apparent nostalgia for a segregated past as a golden opportunity to revive a hate crimes bill, push a minimum wage increase and force the White House to tilt new tax cuts toward minorities and the poor.
They predict the sudden Republican sensitivity to racial issues will continue whether or not Lott stays on as GOP Senate leader in the next Congress, when the party will control both houses.
"Trent Lott is the cue stick by which we engage in our game of billiards," said Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and president of the Black Leadership Council.
Democrats predicted a new civil rights spotlight on their rivals.
"Republicans have to prove, not only to us, of course, but to the American people that they are as sensitive to this question of racism, this question of civil rights, this question of equal opportunity, as they say they are," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said in a televised interview. "But whether or not they truly are depends on who they nominate, what actions they take, how they vote."
Lott ran into trouble Dec. 5 at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948. Lott said people in Mississippi were proud to have voted for Thurmond at the time, adding, "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
He since has apologized repeatedly, but GOP officials have sounded increasingly eager to usher Lott off the leadership stage, worried that the race-based controversy would affect their ability to increase the party's share of the black vote.
Lott has refused to step down, saying he can do more to atone as Senate Majority leader.
Democrats say the issues that Lott may have helped them push include an expansion of hate crimes legislation to cover sexual orientation, which Republicans blocked this year; a minimum wage increase; national legislation banning racial profiling; reform of death penalty laws, which activists say is used against minorities more than anyone else; and AIDS funding, especially for Africa.
Consideration of any of those issues would have been unlikely in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Democrats are also looking at bringing up more affirmative action programs, which Lott said he supports. "I do feel that affirmative action is necessary and essential as we try to bring people of all backgrounds religions and races into the mainstream in America to have opportunity," Lott told ABC on Tuesday.
Democrats are particularly looking at proposing educational affirmative action to ensure university and college admissions are fair to minorities and first-generation college-goers, officials said.
"I think it would be good to have a leader who now believes in affirmative action and will take steps to make sure that affirmative action programs are implemented in every aspect of our lives," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Even the Republican bedrock issue — tax cuts — will be affected by the Lott controversy, Democrats say. One Democratic aide, speaking anonymously, said Democrats plan to take him up on pushing tax policies that are beneficial to low-income Americans.
A Democratic House member, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he relished the idea of Lott staying as Senate Majority leader or even as just a senator, saying the gaffe opened the door for all kinds of Democratic legislation.