WASHINGTON – After mulling over his own bid for the No. 1 Senate leadership post, Sen. Rick Santorum decided late Friday to hold an early meeting of the conference to elect Sen. Bill Frist as the next Senate majority leader.
"I support Senator Bill Frist's candidacy for Republican leader," Santorum, R-Pa., said in a statement. "As Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, I am calling for a special election to be held on Monday, Dec. 23, 2002 at 2:00 p.m. EST for the position of Senate majority leader. It is important that we move forward with the election process to ensure that the Republican Party can continue to move forward with an agenda that will build a more united and whole country."
Mississippi Republican Trent Lott stepped down as the incoming Senate majority leader on Friday but said he will continue to serve his country as a senator.
"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 effective Jan. 6, 2003," Lott said in a written statement. "To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate."
Lott has been vexed by remarks he made two weeks ago at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., in which he suggested that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, the year he ran as a segregationist Dixiecrat.
Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico was the first to say that he wanted to move up the scheduled Jan. 6 Republican conference meeting to debate the party's fate and affirm Frist as the party leader.
"I think in order to get on with things I think we ought to seriously consider by acclamation electing [Frist] as the new leader and that we do it sooner rather than later so we can get on with our work and complete our holidays and good spirits knowing we have done the country and the Republican Party's business," Domenici told Fox News.
Immediately after his announcement, Lott was congratulated for his decision to step down.
"I commend him for his leadership and for his willingness to put the Republican Party, his future and his country's future ahead of him. I look forward to being his colleague in the United States Senate. He has a long and useful life there and I look forward to working with him and I am proud of him for his decision," said Sen.-elect Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
"I think he did the right thing. I think that this time clearly his ability to lead the United States was compromised," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
"I believe Sen. Lott to be a good and honorable man, and I support his decision to step down. It was the best decision for his country and for the president he so deeply admires. Sen. Lott will continue to play a vital role in the Congress for many years to come," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
The White House also thanked Lott for his leadership in the Senate.
"It was a very difficult decision Trent made on behalf of the American people. As majority and minority leader of the Senate, Lott improved education for the American people, led the way in securing tax relief, strengthened national security, and stood for a bold and effective foreign policy. Trent is a valued friend and a man I respect. I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation in the Senate and look forward to working with him on our agenda to make America safer, stronger and better," said a statement by President Bush.
Support quickly mounted for Frist of Tennessee to replace Lott as the Senate Republican leader, and he has the edge by virtue of being the only declared candidate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Santorum — two of Lott's most ardent supporters — were considered possible challengers. McConnell refuted that on Friday, saying that he will back Frist.
Lott is the first Senate leader ever to step down because of controversy, according to Senate Historian Don Ritchie.
"We've never had a Senate Republican leader or Senate Democratic leader step down like this before," Ritchie said.
Rumors had swirled that Lott would be offered a soft landing — a chairmanship or other prime position in which to maintain leadership — but Lott stepped down with no strings attached.
Domenici said that Lott may be able to serve in some manner, perhaps not as a committee chairman, but as something vital to pushing forward Republican policy.
"I am not the one who is going to suggest this for everyone but the Senate is very versatile, the committee system is very interesting, let me just throw one out. We are going to have to find out how we are going to set up the appropriations for the new committees we're going to have up here in order to protect our homeland. That's not been decided up here how that's going to be done," Domenici said.
Many analysts have said the controversy was Lott's own making, not because he is racist — in fact, most people asked agree that he is not — but because he botched attempts to apologize and make amends.
Lott initially attempted to save face with a two-sentence statement. He later went on radio interviews, followed by a press conference and a half-hour discussion on Black Entertainment Television. Observers said that Lott did not appear contrite enough, and others complained that in his attempts to correct the wrong, he was going to give away the store in terms of Republican policy plans.
Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the fast-rising freshman who will head the Senate GOP's campaign effort for the 2004 elections, told Fox News he is backing Frist.
"I am supporting Bill Frist. I think he will bring forth the positive and accurate image of our party and our ideas and I think it's absolutely essential when we get back into session in January ... we need to move forward and I want leadership that will allow us that positive constructive action as opposed to the unfortunate blemish that this has all occasioned as far as the heart and soul of our party," Allen said.
Frist, 50, also won public support from Sens. John Warner of Virginia, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Kit Bond and Jim Talent of Missouri.
Bond said Friday he called Lott to ask him "to make way for a new Senate Republican leader who is able to speak with a strong voice to Americans of all races."
In a statement, Frist said several senators had approached him Thursday and asked him to seek the job. He said he agreed to let them gauge support from all 51 GOP senators who will serve in the Congress that convenes next month.
"I indicated to them that if it is clear that a majority of the Republican caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role," Frist said.
On Friday morning, while taking a jog near his home, Frist added, "You know, I'm trying not to do anything public or anything on TV because it's a matter for the caucus itself. So I think what I'll do later today is see how the day goes and then possibly put out a statement today or tomorrow."
Frist, a heart transplant surgeon before coming to Congress in 1995, helped engineer the GOP takeover of the Senate in last month's elections.
He was among those Bush considered as a running mate in his 2000 presidential campaign, and has been a leading GOP voice on prescription drugs and other health care issues.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.