WASHINGTON – Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott on Wednesday won the post of the Republican Party's Senate minority whip, the No. 2 GOP spot in the coming Congress.
It was a resurrection of sorts for Lott, who was ousted as Republican leader in the Senate four years ago after making what many considered a racially insensitive remark during a tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Lott, who beat Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee by a single vote, said he had been looking forward to getting back to his vote-counting roots, and working alongside the newly-elected GOP minority leader.
"I'm honored to be a part of this leadership team to support Mitch McConnell and all of my colleagues to do a job that I've always really loved the most: count the votes. And all Mitch is going to want me to do is count the magic '60' or the magic '51,' and I'll do my very best in that effort," Lott said, referring to the number of votes needed to break a filibuster or to win a simple majority in the Senate.
Lott appeared with the other newly elected members of the Senate Republican leadership: McConnell, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who was made Senate Republican Conference chairman; Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the new Republican Policy chairwoman; Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who will be the vice chairman of the Republican Conference; and Nevada Sen. John Ensign as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"Every single member of this leadership is brand new. We represent a vigorous minority of 49 in a body where it takes 60 to do anything. And we are unified in our desire to work with the Democrats, across party lines, to see what we can accomplish for the country," McConnell, R-Ky., said.
"But we will be a robust minority, a vigorous minority, and, hopefully, a minority that is only in that condition for a couple of years," McConnell added.
McConnell told reporters that despite Republicans' losing their majority in last week's midterm election, the caucus is "very upbeat" and realizes it must work with Democrats in the 110th Congress if Republicans want to get any legislation passed. He also said he recognized the ability to gum up the process if deemed necessary.
"We want to work with the Democrats. Our preference is to accomplish things rather than block things. But, of course, that's an option," McConnell said.
Asked by a reporter about once again sharing the spotlight Lott clearly relishes, the man who has been a Republican leader in both the House and Senate took a back seat to McConnell.
"I'm going to shock you by starting off on the right frame of mind. I defer on this occasion to our leader. We'll work together with him, and talk about substance more later. The spotlight belongs on him," Lott said.
But Lott later told FOX News just how unlikely his political rise was. When President Bush called Lott on Wednesday to offer his congratulations, Lott said, "Hey Mr. President, this is Lazaraus," Lott recalled, referring to the biblical figure who rose from the dead.
The calm and conciliatory remarks Wednesday came after an intense Tuesday evening in which both Lott and Alexander lobbied colleagues during floor votes. The Republican caucus elected Lott by secret ballot. Two GOP sources told FOX News that Lott beat Alexander by a 25-24 vote.
Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the retiring Senate majority leader and potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in two years, praised the results.
With the new leadership, "the Republican agenda and ideals will continue to move America forward," Frist said in a statement.
With the midterm election finished and expected No. 2 Republican Sen. Rick Santorum having failed to win re-election, Lott had cast himself as the more experienced candidate and the better choice for a job that will be crucial in a Democratic-controlled Senate split 51-49.
Lott was forced out of Senate leadership in 2002 after remarks he made while attending a 100th birthday celebration for Thurmond, who had once ran against President Harry Truman on a platform supporting segregation.
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. 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 said at the time. Although he apologized, the tidal wave of criticism led to his resignation from the majority leader post.
The residual turmoil appeared to be all but forgotten Wednesday. Hutchison said after the vote that the tension in the caucus room was broken when Santorum announced the one-vote margin favoring Lott, and the room erupted into a standing ovation. The news was twice as surprising because Alexander told colleagues prior to the vote that he'd locked enough support to win the seat.
The job of counting votes is nearly an art among finicky colleagues, any one of whom can use Senate procedure to hold up business or kill legislation. A former Cabinet secretary and governor and now a deputy Republican whip, Alexander cast himself as a morale-booster for a demoralized Republican caucus.
On Tuesday, Alexander argued he would do a better job at behind-the-scenes maneuvering to secure votes on bills. Alexander also suggested that it's unwise for Republicans to return to Lott.
"I think our Republican Party, after the drubbing we took [in the election], needs first unified leadership, and second we need some new faces and some fresh thinking. And I hope that's what I offer the caucus," Alexander said.
In the closed meeting, several sources said Lott gave an emotional acceptance speech after the close vote.
"Trent was very moved. ... Everyone has respected the way he has handled his adversity," Hutchison said. "I just felt that he had a weight lifted off his shoulders."
"He's a tremendous resource for us. He was very emotional. He's got another chance, and I'm happy for him," said Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who also voted for Lott.
How Lott's new clout will play out remains to be seen, but some sources speculated that Lott and McCain — who is a likely 2008 presidential contender — might make a powerful duo that could cause trouble for the White House, which has a strong link to McConnell.
"The White House hates this. A Lott-McCain alliance is not going to be helpful to a McConnell-White House alliance," said one former longtime Republican leadership aide on hand for the vote.
Lott also could have an ax to grind with President Bush, who criticized Lott for his controversial 2002 comments. No one indicated Wednesday that Lott would ever use it.
"No one here is elected to serve the White House. ... The division of power is an important one. I expect Trent will work with [the administration] in that spirit just fine," Cornyn said.
Lott told FOX News he doesn't plan to hold grudges.
"I'm on the team. One of my arguments to my colleagues was that it's a two-way street [between Congress and the White House]. If I disagree with something, I'm going to tell them — but privately," Lott said.
The GOP whip's race was but one source of suspense in the wake of the midterm balloting, in which war-weary voters stripped President Bush's party of its majority. Congress returned to a lame-duck session to pass a budget, and the Senate was considering Bush's nomination of a new defense secretary.
On Thursday, House Democrats will elect their leadership for the 110th Congress. Reps. Steny Hoyer and John Murtha have been publicly duking it out for the role of House majority leader, the No. 2 spot behind presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
FOX News' Trish Turner and the Associated Press contributed to this report.