No. 2 GOP senator urges vote on Lott
Leading Republican says issue 'bigger than any single senator'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Trent Lott's controversial comments this month may have jeopardized his ability to advance the GOP agenda and Republicans should have an opportunity to choose a new leader, the Senate's No. 2 Republican said Sunday.
In a statement posted on his Web site, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, said that he accepted Lott's apology for remarks apparently praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign.
But Nickles added that the issue "is bigger than any single senator now."
"I am concerned that Sen. Lott has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans," the statement said.
"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership, and I hope we have an opportunity to choose."
Lott attended services Sunday at the First Baptist Church in his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Asked for his response to Nickles' statement as he entered the building, Lott said, "Well, you'll have to let him explain that."
Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, said Senate Republicans should come "face to face" to discuss the issue and decide what to do.
"Only these 51 proud senators can make the decision as to who should be our leader," Warner said on CNN's "Late Edition." "I feel we should come together as a group and make that decision and put to rest once and for all this controversy."
Warner stopped short of calling for a new vote, but he said it was not fair to the party, to the nation or to Lott to "leave him dangling out there for another two weeks or so" until Congress reconvenes in January.
"I think the important thing is that we come together, have the interaction and exchange of our views face to face," he said. "We're going to be judged by how we handled this situation."
On December 5, at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who is retiring from the Senate, Lott said the country would have been "a lot better off" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. As a Dixiecrat, Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform.
Incoming majority whip defends Lott
Nickles is the first Republican senator to discuss openly the possibility of replacing Lott as the party's leader in the Senate. Nickles, the outgoing whip, and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, have been mentioned as possible successors to Lott if he steps down.
However, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will succeed Nickles as GOP whip, defended Lott on Sunday and urged the party to "accept this apology and move on."
"Sen. Lott was elected to a two-year term, and he's said he's not going to resign, and in my view he shouldn't," McConnell told "Fox News Sunday." "We need to stay together and pursue the president's agenda."
McConnell acknowledged the matter was "a crisis," but he insisted the party's goal should be to focus on Bush's agenda and not on the "big mistake" of the Senate GOP leader.
"If we descend into a lot of internal bickering, I don't see how we can advance the president's agenda, and to me that's the most important thing we can be doing," he said.
McConnell shot down the idea of censure -- which several leaders, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, have called for -- threatening that the GOP would dredge up remarks by Democrats for censure if that happens.
Some of those comments, McConnell said, "are much worse than what Sen. Lott said."
"I just don't think that's a constructive use of the time of the Senate," McConnell said. "If we're going to get into the business of censuring members for racially sensitive comments, it's not going to be limited to Sen. Lott."
Rep. J.C. Watts, the outgoing Oklahoma representative who is the sole black Republican in Congress, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he was prepared to accept the apology and move on, but he added there was "no defense" for what Lott said.
As for whether the Mississippian should remain at the helm of the Senate, Watts said only "that remains to be seen."
Dodd: Problem has roots in Republican Party
Democratic officials have been much quicker to criticize Lott, although to date only Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- who is considering a run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 -- and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin have called for Lott's resignation as majority leader.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, came close Sunday on "Late Edition."
"If Tom Daschle or another Democratic leader were to have made similar statements, the reaction would have been very swift," Dodd said. "I don't think several hours would have gone by without there being an almost unanimous call for the leader to step aside."
Dodd said the problem lies with the Republican Party.
"Mainstream Republican thinking over the last 40 years has been opposed to an awful lot of the civil rights legislation," he said. "So this isn't just about Trent Lott, it's about a party that needs to come to terms with this view here -- that you go to the South, you say one thing to one group of people and another thing nationally."
Dodd said that unless the Republicans address the issue of race relations head on, "they're going to pay an awful price politically and it hurts the country terribly in my view."
Dodd agreed that the Republicans should make the decision about Lott but added that if the senator were to stay, a move to censure him "takes on more of a reality."
"But it ought to be bipartisan," he said. "It ought not to be Democrats versus Republicans."
According to senior GOP leadership aides, many in the Senate Republican caucus are trying to devise what has been described as a "soft landing" for Lott -- a high-profile position that would keep him from resigning his seat.
Mississippi's governor, Ronnie Musgrove, is a Democrat and likely would appoint someone in his party to replace Lott. Such a move would leave the Senate split at 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Lott has apologized several times for his remarks, most recently Friday to reporters in Pascagoula. At the time, he said he would not resign his leadership post "for an accusation that I'm something I'm not."
Lott will address a largely black audience Monday night on the Black Entertainment Television cable network to expand on his explanation for his remarks. (Full story)