Published December 19, 2002
WASHINGTON – Incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is continuing his PR campaign Thursday, making phone calls to senators to seek their forgiveness and ask them to save his political hide.
The continuing effort follows remarks by one Republican senator on Wednesday that Lott should step down. It was the first such open call for Lott's resignation from the leadership.
On Wednesday, after an address to the Chamber of Commerce in Biloxi, Miss., Lott told reporters that White House leaks about the administration's position on his future were neither helpful nor true.
"There seems to be some things that are seeping out that have not been helpful," Lott said. "I understand how that happens because you've got a lot of people who work there that have different points of view. But I believe they do support what I am trying to do here and the president will continue to do so."
On Wednesday, President Bush declined to discuss the controversy surrounding Lott, who has been dogged for his comments nearly two weeks ago at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that seemed to suggest support for past segregation policies.
Last week, the president made remarks saying that past policies of segregation are a stain on the nation's history. Since then, he has refused to speak on the matter.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that the president did not speak Wednesday with Lott about whether he should resign, though Lott did discuss his situation with an aide at the White House.
Fleischer would not weigh in on what the Republican conference should do when it meets on Jan. 6 to discuss dumping Lott and holding new leadership elections.
"Any of the events, any of the comments that lead up to this January 6 meeting, the White House will not comment on," Fleischer said.
"If there is a leadership race, the White House plays no role, and will play no role and offers no thoughts and opinions, and proffers no advice about this matter. This is a congressional matter if it gets to that point," he said. "There are no thoughts and opinions about any potential candidacies."
But some lawmakers have said that Lott's continuation as the Senate majority leader will damage Republican standing among voters.
Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee told a radio interviewer in Providence on Wednesday that "it is time for a change" among the Senate GOP leadership. He is the first senator to say as much publicly.
"I think the biggest problem has been that his apologies haven't connected,'' Chafee told WPRO-AM, adding the caveat that "the only way to have a change, in my opinion, is for the White House to come in here and say to Majority Leader Trent Lott, 'It's time for change.'"
Chafee spokeswoman Debbie Rich said this is no different from what Chafee has been saying for a week now. Asked who would be a good replacement, Chafee said he believed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas would be a good choice.
Retiring Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the only black Republican lawmaker in Congress, said that if he were in Lott's position, he would weigh whether staying on as leader is good for the party or his grandchildren. He said he has told Lott to weigh those matters.
And Secretary of State Colin Powell, the highest ranking African-American ever in U.S. government, said that while he accepts Lott's apology, he takes exception to the words that got Lott in trouble in the first place.
"I deplored the sentiments behind the statement. There was nothing about the 1948 election or the Dixiecrat agenda that should have been acceptable in any way, to any American, at that time or any American now," Powell said.
Several lawmakers have stepped up to discuss Lott's future, and several publications have printed quotes from administration officials who said they would like Lott to resign his leadership post. Some Senate Republicans indicated they need to resolve the situation before the beginning of next year's Congress.
Fleischer said that much of the information that has been printed as attributable to the White House is wrong.
"I think there is a sense that you can't help but pick up the newspaper and read things and you see the things that are being said that are wrongly being sourced and attributed to the White House. And I think there is a sense here that obviously people read those stories and they want to know is the White House saying those things. Yes or no," he told reporters.
"I think that you are all in a different difficult spot ... recognizing that there are people who have pre-formed opinions about what the final result will be and they may be sharing their pre-formed opinions with you that are removed, far removed, from what the White House is saying," Fleischer said.
Lott, who told ABC News that he has talked to most of the Senate GOP caucus and believes he has a majority of Republicans to support his continuation in the job, said that he is feeling positive that he will survive.
"I'm telling you here this morning, I'm hanging in there,'' Lott told the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce. "I'm going to find a way for myself, my family, my friends, you the people of Mississippi and America to benefit from this experience.''
Lott said he will continue to lobby for support, but insisted that if he loses his leadership post, he will not quit the Senate, turning it back to a 50-50 split, assuming that Mississippi's Democratic governor picks a member of his own party to serve out Lott's term until next November when a special election would be held.
That idea had been floating around earlier as a stick to keep Lott's leadership seat, an idea Lott rejected on Wednesday.
"I was elected by the people of Mississippi to a six-year term," he told reporters. "I've served two years of that contract. I have a contract and I'm going to fulfill it.''
If Lott were to quit, some officials feared that Chafee would be wooed by Democrats to switch parties, giving the Democrats the majority.
Some lawmakers have also wondered aloud whether Lott could lead the Republican Party if he keeps his post.
"There is now a substantial question as to whether Sen. Lott has the capacity to move'' the GOP agenda in the new Congress, said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., one of the new guard of Republicans whose election last month helped deliver a majority to the GOP.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a moderate Republican who has previously expressed support for Lott, was hopeful that the embarrassment could turn into a plus for the party.
"This is an occasion where Sen. Lott and the Republican caucus could do something positive, like passing hate crimes legislation, like going into education programs," Specter said. "I am going to prepare a whole list for our Republican caucus when we take up this subject in January saying that this is a real wake-up call, not only for Trent Lott and not only for the Republican caucus, but for America," he said.
In a late afternoon conference call on Tuesday, GOP Conference Chairman Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said he still believes Lott will be majority leader in January and doesn't think reports are true that the president wants him out.
Asked if he believes Lott will decide to step down, Santorum said no.
But Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, echoing many others, called for a final decision to be made before the new year. "This matter has gone beyond the statement of a single individual to one of national importance, and unfortunately divisiveness and turmoil. As such, this situation should be and very well may be resolved prior [to] Jan. 6,'' he said.
Lott triggered the controversy Dec. 5 at Thurmond's birthday party in which he said people in Mississippi were proud to have voted for Thurmond when he ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1948, and added "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, saying the remarks were not meant the way they came out. He also appeared in a half-hour program Monday on Black Entertainment Television in which he announced his support for affirmative action despite having voted against such programs in the past.
One lawmaker who has spoken with Lott in recent days said the Mississippian appears to have the support of most members of his leadership team and many senior members, some of whom are in line to become committee chairmen and may value maximum independence from the White House when it comes time to negotiate over legislation.
"But he was also fully aware that this thing is very fluid and dynamic,'' said the lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Should Lott step down, four contenders, Santorum, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Bill Frist of Tennessee and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, are being looked at as possible replacements.
Fox News' Julie Asher and Elizabeth Boswell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.