Lott vows to fight for leadership job
One GOP senator calls on Lott to step down
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Embattled Sen. Trent Lott vowed anew Wednesday to hold onto his job as Republican Senate leader, picking up the support of some colleagues -- but facing a public call to step aside from one GOP senator.
"I am hanging in there," Lott told reporters Wednesday in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Lott, however, could not seem to contain public expressions of doubt about his leadership capabilities in the wake of comments from him that have been criticized as racially divisive.
"I think the biggest problem has been that his apologies haven't connected," Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island, told radio station WPRO-AM. Chafee called on the White House to "come in here and say to Majority Leader Trent Lott, 'It's time for change.' "
And the only black Republican in Congress -- who has defended Lott -- stressed that the Mississippi Republican has a tough political fight for survival on his hands. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, who is retiring, suggested the fight may not be worth it for Lott.
"I would not put my family, my kids, my friends, my party through what I think the senator is going to have to go through," Watts said.
Powell weighs in
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most prominent African American in the Bush administration, said Wednesday he "deplored the sentiments" behind Lott's praise for Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist bid for the White House.
"There was nothing about the 1948 election or the Dixiecrat agenda that should have been acceptable in any way to any American at that time or any American now," Powell told reporters. "I will let the senator and members of the Senate deal with this issue."
Lott said he would survive any challenge to his post as majority leader, and Tuesday he picked up the support of a few GOP senators, including Alaska's Ted Stevens, who vowed to "defend my friend." Others who have voiced support for Lott include Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Michael DeWine of Ohio.
Wednesday, Lott said he was reaching out to his colleagues and gave no sign of throwing in the towel.
"I was elected by the people of Mississippi to a six-year term," Lott said. "I've served two years of that contract, I have a contract, and I'm going to fulfill it."
But the statements from Chafee and Watts suggest that Lott has failed to stem the erosion of support that started almost two weeks ago. On Tuesday, Sen. Jim Talent, a freshman from Missouri, said there was a "substantial question" as to whether Lott could advance the GOP agenda in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the White House stood firmly on the sidelines, refusing to intervene in any effort to replace Lott as GOP Senate leader -- or to save his job.
"The White House does not choose sides in a potential leadership race," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
January meeting on Lott
Republican senators are to meet January 6 to consider whether they should vote on a new leader, and Lott is trying to round up commitments before that meeting. (Potential successors)
The comments from Stevens, the second-most senior Republican senator, were one of the strongest endorsements of Lott since he set off a political firestorm when he praised Thurmond's unsuccessful presidential bid at a birthday party December 5. Praise of that campaign drew condemnation -- from President Bush and others -- because Thurmond ran on a segregationist platform.
Stevens said he believes Lott meant the comments as praise for Thurmond as a military man and longtime Senate colleague -- not praise for his past segregationist ways. He said Lott's comments have been blown "out of proportion."
Hatch made similar comments. "I think at this point, it's piling on," Hatch said of the criticism of Lott.
For his part, Lott has apologized repeatedly for his comments, most recently during an interview Monday with Black Entertainment Television. Lott, who made similar remarks about Thurmond in 1980, said he repudiated segregation and described his comments as "repugnant" and "inexcusable."
Lott also praised Thurmond as someone who should have been president during a 2000 Capitol Hill ceremony. A videotape of that event surfaced Tuesday.
Lott's office has released a list showcasing the senator's "record on opportunity." Among the highlights: support for an education reform deal to help failing schools, funding for historically black colleges, backing for trade with Africa and a push for a resolution condemning the arson of African-American churches.
But many civil rights activists have pointed to Lott's votes in Congress, including his opposition to renewing the Voting Rights Act and the establishment of a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. They scoffed at his statement during the BET interview that he supported affirmative action.
Bush strongly rebuked Lott last week, calling his comments "wrong" and "offensive." But the president also relayed word through aides that he did not think Lott had to step down.
If Lott were to resign, Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, would appoint a new senator. A Democratic replacement would return the Senate to a 50-50 split.