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Warner: Frist to challenge Lott

Warner: The stakes are much
Warner: The stakes are much "bigger than friendship."

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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton says the Republican Party is being hypocritical in its handling of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi (December 18)
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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on embattled Sen. Trent Lott's vow to hold on to his job as majority leader (December 19)
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On CNN's Crossfire, Democratic strategist and co-host James Carville forgives Lott (December 18)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Bill Frist on Thursday became the first Republican to challenge Trent Lott for the job of Senate majority leader in the next term of Congress, said Sen. John Warner of Virginia.

A physician from Tennessee who is a favorite of the White House, Frist issued a statement late Thursday saying several senators had approached him and asked him to seek the job.

"I indicated to them that if it is clear that a majority of the Republican caucus believes a change in leadership would benefit the institution of the United States Senate, I will likely step forward for that role," Frist said.

Frist and Warner met on Capitol Hill Thursday evening, and afterward Warner said there was no "likely" about it -- Frist will "definitely seek the nomination of our caucus."

"I'm pleased to join the Bill Frist team, and I can assure you the team is growing in numbers very quickly," Warner told an impromptu news conference in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building.

The veteran Virginia senator has long been a friend of Lott's. But he was among the first of the GOP's 51 senators to call for a meeting of the party conference to consider whether to vote on a new leader. The meeting is set for January 6.

The stakes are much "bigger than friendship," Warner said, and the leadership battle is an issue "about what's best for the United States of America" and how best the GOP can "preserve the credibility of the United States Senate."

With the country fighting a war on terror and the president making "tough decisions" daily, Warner said "[President Bush] needs the support of his Republican colleagues, united and led by strong leaders in both houses."

Asked if Lott should step aside, Warner replied: "I'm not standing up here asking him to bow out. He can make that decision himself."

Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean late Thursday said the Mississippi Republican has no plans to step aside.

"Trent Lott will be the majority leader in the next Congress. He has a track record of loyalty, dedication and experience in shepherding President Bush's agenda for all Americans through the Senate," Bonjean said.

Frist has been sharply critical of the remarks Lott made at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, but he had previously denied having any interest in replacing Lott as majority leader.

Lott was elected to the post in November, but his political standing has eroded in Washington because of the controversy surrounding his praise of Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for the presidency.

The remarks -- suggesting the nation would have been better off had Thurmond been elected -- drew a strong rebuke from, among others, Bush, who called them "offensive" and "wrong."

An aide to Sen. Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, said Nickles would likely support Frist if he decided to challenge Lott.

Nickles, No. 2 in the GOP Senate hierarchy behind Lott, said earlier this week he believes Republican senators "should have an opportunity to choose" a new majority leader. Warner said he expected a statement from Nickles office Friday.

Warner said he had spoken with others who also back Frist, among them James Inhofe of Oklahoma and George Allen of Virginia.

Lott, who has apologized repeatedly for his comments and said he repudiates segregation, said Wednesday he believes he can survive any leadership challenge.

So far, only one GOP senator -- Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- has said publicly that Lott should step down.

Others, however, have been very critical of his comments, saying they have opened the GOP to unfair charges of racial bigotry.

Several Republicans and conservatives say the controversy threatens to undermine the Republican agenda -- and that of the White House -- in Congress next year.

Lott has picked up the public support of about 10 Republican senators, including such senior figures as Alaska's Ted Stevens and Utah's Orrin Hatch. But most GOP senators are keeping quiet about the matter.

"I think it is a little premature to pick a new leader when we have a leader in Senator Lott," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania told CNN. "I think that we ought to give Senator Lott an opportunity to be heard ... before we start picking his successor."

The White House is staying on the sidelines, refusing to publicly endorse the idea of replacing Lott -- or offering him much support. Warner denied the White House had been involved in persuading Frist to run or that he had been in contact with the White House over the issue.

"The White House will work with whoever it is that members of Congress deem appropriate to represent themselves," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday.

Former President Clinton lashed out at the GOP Wednesday, saying it was "pretty hypocritical" of Republicans to criticize Lott for stating publicly what he said the GOP does "on the back roads every day." (Full story)

CNN correspondents Jonathan Karl and Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

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