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White House takes no stance on Lott

Official: 'Let this run its course'

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

Bush denounced Lott's comments last week.
Bush denounced Lott's comments last week.

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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on an apologetic Trent Lott's appearance on BET (December 17)
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CNN's Gary Tuchman reports on an African-American crowd's reaction to Lott's appearance on BET (December 17)
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CNN's John King reports that Sen. Trent Lott's role as Senate Republican leader may be in jeopardy (December 16)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House repeated its position Tuesday that President Bush does not believe Sen. Trent Lott should resign his post as Republican leader.

But senior officials said the White House will not mount an effort to help the Mississippi Republican survive questions about his leadership in the wake of his racially charged remarks.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush stood by his statement that Lott should not be forced to resign because he had apologized for remarks the president considered offensive.

Lott's remarks came December 5 at a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who is retiring from the Senate.

Noting that Mississippi was one of four states to vote for Thurmond as the presidential candidate for the breakaway Dixiecrats in 1948, Lott said, "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."

Asked by an interviewer on Black Entertainment Television Monday night what he meant by "all these problems," Lott said he was referring to other parts of Thurmond's conservative political philosophy, not his support for racial segregation, which was the centerpiece of Dixiecrat campaign.

Thurmond has since renounced his segregationist views.

When asked about a January 6 meeting of Senate Republicans to discuss Lott's fate, Fleischer said the White House would have no comment.

"The White House will not comment on that meeting or anything leading up to that meeting," Fleischer said.

A senior official intimately involved in political strategy described the White House approach to the controversy this way: ''We are not doing and are not going to do anything to push him [Lott] out. He has been very good to us."

Still, the official said it was a "fair statement" to also say the administration is not doing anything to discourage those calling for new Senate GOP leadership elections.

The official said the reason is that Bush does not want the White House involved in an internal Senate leadership question. Other Republicans, however, are interpreting the lack of a sustained White House defense of Lott as a sign the White House would prefer a change in leadership.

"Some people are taking what we are saying an extra step or two," said another senior official. "We just want to stick by the president's statement and let this run its course."

A prominent Republican with close ties to the White House said there was "zero upside" for the White House in getting involved.

This official said he found it impossible to envision Lott surviving a leadership challenge and said "there is no reason for the White House to intervene. This is taking its natural course and it looks like it is going to result in the outcome they want anyway."

This Republican recalled an incident back in the first Bush administration, when the White House made it clear it favored Rep. Ed Madigan in a House leadership battle with then Rep. Newt Gingrich.

"That did not help Madigan at all," this official said. "The House and Senate don't like interference in deciding the rules of their club. Any White House involvement could have perverse effects."

Bush met Tuesday morning with House Speaker Dennis Hastert to discuss the legislative agenda for next year. White House aides said Lott was out of town on vacation, and said no slight or signal was intended.

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