WASHINGTON – In a week of lightning-fast action in the Senate, three veteran Republicans were instrumental in getting a determined Trent Lott to relinquish his leadership post and clearing the way for Bill Frist to replace him, participants say.
Working separately and mostly behind the scenes, as congressional leadership races usually play themselves out, Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky helped bring about the tumultuous change.
In so doing, they hastened an end to a 15-day ordeal in which Lott's celebration of Strom Thurmond's segregationist run for the presidency in 1948 had put the entire Republican Party on the defensive, from the Bush White House down.
Lott, R-Miss., resigned Friday as Senate GOP leader. Frist, R-Tenn., seems certain to be elected to the job Monday by his colleagues. That would make him majority leader when the GOP retakes Senate control in the new Congress that convenes in early January.
"Trent is a fighter, and I know his decision to step down as Republican leader was incredibly hard, but by stepping aside today he has shown real leadership and courage," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., among many Republicans who expressed relief. "He has put the interests of the country and the party ahead of himself."
Lott's troubles started at Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Dec. 5, when he said, "We wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" had the South Carolinian been elected president.
An initial round of Lott apologies failed to end the matter. Days later, when President Bush said the remarks were offensive and wrong, many Republicans saw that as a sign that Lott's days as leader were numbered.
Lott continued to insist he would keep his job, but Nickles, Lott's lieutenant and longtime rival, went on television last Sunday to urge new leadership elections. Some Republicans saw that as a sign Nickles hoped to replace Lott, although Nickles aides insist his real plan had been to find an alternative to Lott.
Warner, a 24-year Senate veteran and incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also embraced the idea of a meeting. Soon, GOP senators scheduled a meeting Jan. 6 to decide Lott's fate.
Warner said in an interview Friday that early last week he began meeting frequently with Frist, who is in his second term and who helped engineer the GOP's Senate takeover.
Warner, Frist's friend since the Tennessean's arrival in Washington in 1995, said both fretted that no one was challenging Lott.
Frist, a wealthy heart surgeon, is seen by many Republicans as cautious but ambitious, considering a possible 2008 run for the White House. He was mentioned immediately as a possible successor to Lott. GOP lawmakers and aides, however, said Frist worried that becoming leader would make him a target of Democratic attacks and take time from his efforts on behalf of health care legislation and from longer-term political goals.
By Thursday, Warner said, it was apparent that Frist was the senator who had to step forward. After a Thursday evening meeting with Warner, Frist announced his candidacy.
"There was no one else," said Warner, describing the 50-year-old Frist as "a fresh face, charismatic, an excellent communicator."
Warner said he tried reaching Lott twice last week, finally leaving a detailed message on his answering machine expressing his views. He would not to say what he told Lott.
Nickles, too, had conversations with Frist during the week and eventually lined up behind him. Nickles had concluded that Frist was more likely than he to win support among GOP senators, Republican aides said.
At the same time, Frist and his growing group of supporters were sounding out colleagues continually by telephone, GOP aides said. Rapidly rounding up support is crucial in leadership races, and Frist was eager to show momentum immediately.
McConnell, who will be No. 2 Senate Republican next year, was one of Lott's staunchest allies. Early last week, he issued a statement saying, "I maintain my support for Senator Lott and hope this issue is resolved quickly so we can move forward together to advance the president's agenda."
But by Thursday night, so many GOP senators had indicated that Lott stood little chance of retaining his job that some supporters were starting to urge him to step aside. McConnell was among the most influential of those.
When Lott called early Friday, "I did give him my candid assessment. I'm certain he figured that out without my help," McConnell said on television.
Bowing to the movement toward Frist, McConnell also decided against a run.
"It's pretty obvious we've made a selection now," McConnell said.