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Skepticism greets Lott's latest apology

White House keeps distance from furor

Sen. Trent Lott repeatedly denounced his own comments during an interview with BET.
Sen. Trent Lott repeatedly denounced his own comments during an interview with BET.

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Listen to the comment by Sen. Trent Lott in 2000 that is similar to the recent comments that may cost him his job (December 18)
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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports that Republicans aren't yet seeking Trent Lott's resignation, but they're not offering support, either (December 18)
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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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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Trent Lott's latest apology over comments that many people interpret as expressing nostalgia for segregation seems to have changed few minds about the Mississippi Republican, who is struggling to hold onto his leadership position in the Senate.

Significantly, another Republican senator came forward to question whether Lott could be an effective leader for the GOP agenda in the Senate, even as a civil rights leader said Lott deserved a second chance.

"There is now a substantial question as to whether Senator Lott has the capacity to move that agenda forward," said Sen. Jim Talent, a freshman senator from Missouri.

In an interview Monday evening on Black Entertainment Television, Lott, the Senate majority leader-elect, issued another mea culpa for his remarks praising a 1948 segregationist presidential bid, calling them "insensitive," "repugnant" and "inexcusable."

This latest interview comes at a time of political peril for the GOP leader. His Republican Senate colleagues are set to meet January 6 to consider a possible new leadership vote. The White House is keeping its distance from the furor, saying it is a matter for Senate Republicans to decide.

But Lott won support from Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, a popular civil rights figure who said he would not call on Lott to step down.

While Lott's record on civil rights issues is "not anything to be proud of," Lewis said, "it is my hope that Sen. Lott has learned from his mistakes and from his blunders." In Alaska, Sen. Ted Steven, a Republican, said Lott's comments have been blown "out of proportion" and vowed to "defend my friend" when he returned to Washington. (Full story)

In comments at South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party earlier this month, Lott said he and other Mississippians were proud to have backed Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid as a pro-segregation Dixiecrat -- "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

A few days later, word came that Lott had made a similar comment in 1980.

During his BET interview, Lott said he is not racist and is committed to overcoming the problems of the past. He said he supports affirmative action and other policies that are designed to achieve equality.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-New York, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called that claim "almost laughable when you look at his voting record."

• Twice voted against extending the Voting Rights Act
• Voted against holiday memorializing Martin Luther King Jr.
• Voted against strengthening Fair Housing Act
• Supported historically black colleges
• Helped pass Africa Free Trade bill
• Worked to ensure minorities received jobs at a new Nissan plant in Mississippi
• Introduced resolution condemning the targeting of black churches by arsonists
Source: Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Trent Lott's office

At an African-American social club in Lott's hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, many of those who gathered to watch the broadcast interview scoffed and even laughed at some of Lott's statements -- including his statement that he regretted voting (in 1983) against establishing a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and would vote for one now.

"I think he would say anything now that he thinks black Americans want to hear," said one viewer.

Lott's office Tuesday provided CNN with a list highlighting the senator's "record on opportunity." Among the highlights were Lott's support for an education deal to help failing schools; funding for historically black colleges; trade with Africa, and a resolution condemning the arson of African-American churches.

J.C. Watts, outgoing representative from Oklahoma and the lone black Republican in the Congress that just ended its term, Tuesday praised Lott's support for "things that affect the African-American community."

But several civil rights leaders have said Lott has stood in the way of progress. The NAACP pointed to, among other things, Lott's vote against extending the Voting Rights Act and a past speaking engagement before the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the civil rights groups described as a white supremacist organization. Lott said Monday he would re-examine the record of that group.

Meeks said that despite Lott's attempts to apologize, he "should be censured on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives."

For now, Lott's greater concern may be what fellow Republicans in the next Congress think.

"The White House will not comment on that meeting or anything leading up to that meeting," presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday about the January 6 conference of GOP senators.

Several Republicans have publicly criticized Lott. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, was the first Republican to call for new elections for the majority leader post. Nickles is seen as a contender to replace Lott.

Lott insisted Monday that he will hold onto his position "because of what I'm going to say, what I'm going to do. And I think this actually can help us move an agenda that will be good for ... all Americans."

Lott maintains the support of some Republican leaders who say he has adequately apologized. President Bush, who harshly rebuked Lott for his comments, has said through aides that he does not think Lott has to resign.

But privately, officials tell CNN the White House will not intervene if Senate Republicans decide to elect a new majority leader. Some Republicans are taking this as a sign that the president would like to see Lott go.

Others seen as possible replacements if Lott is forced to give up his leadership post include GOP Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Bill Frist of Tennessee and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

If Lott were to resign as senator, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, would appoint a replacement.

Musgrove met Monday night with Mike Espy, a former U.S. representative and agriculture secretary, during a fund-raiser. Aides to both men said the possibility of Lott's departure did not come up, but Democratic sources said Espy -- who was the first black candidate elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction -- is interested in being appointed to Lott's seat if it becomes open.

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