Lott steps down as majority leader
Frist likely to take Lott's place
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Wounded by the political firestorm over his comments criticized by many as racially divisive, Sen. Trent Lott announced Friday he was stepping down as Republican leader in the Senate.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, appears to have enough votes to replace Lott, who had been under increasing pressure to step aside because of the furor, which Republicans feared would distract from their congressional agenda and undermine efforts to reach out to minority voters.
A CNN tally of public commitments from Republican senators found that Frist has the support of more than 26 colleagues -- enough to elect him majority leader. Sources said that Senate Republicans would have a conference call Monday to vote on a new leader -- moving up a meeting that had been scheduled previously for January 6.
"In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective January 6, 2003," Lott, 61, said in a statement. His decision to step down in the face of controversy is unprecedented for a Senate majority leader.
"To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate," Lott said, indicating that he would not resign his seat from the upper house of Congress.
Frist, 50, had announced his "likely" candidacy Thursday night, and support for him grew quickly.(Full story)
Lott was elected majority leader in November, but his political standing eroded in Washington because of the controversy surrounding his praise of Strom 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, President Bush, who called them "offensive" and "wrong."
Lott, despite several apologies, never managed to contain the criticism from Democrats and -- more importantly -- conservatives and Republicans. His legislative record on civil rights was scrutinized, and past statements about Thurmond's 1948 candidacy were also criticized.
"I have concluded that the current controversy has completely overshadowed our efforts to expand the American dream to all Americans," Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Missouri, said in a statement Friday, announcing his support for Frist even before Lott stepped aside.
Other senators, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Warner of Virginia, issued their own endorsements of Frist. (Full story)
Warner: 'Bigger than friendship'
Warner 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 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."
Before Lott's decision, only one GOP senator -- Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- had said publicly that Lott should step down.
Others, however, were very critical of his comments, saying they opened the GOP to unfair charges of racial bigotry.
Several Republicans and conservatives said the controversy threatened to undermine the Republican agenda -- and that of the White House -- in Congress next year. The furor took the glow off the Republicans' election victories in November, when they regained control of the Senate and built on their majority in the House.
Lott's decision to step down was praised by Republicans as selfless. "He is putting the good of country and party ahead of his own personal ambitions," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
The Mississippi Republican had picked up the public support of about nine Republican senators, including such senior figures as Alaska's Ted Stevens and Utah's Orrin Hatch. But most GOP senators kept quiet about whether they thought Lott should be replaced, and the dynamics changed dramatically once word leaked out that Frist was sounding out his colleagues about a run.
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 post. Friday, Frist praised Lott and said he looked forward to working with him.
Throughout the two-week controversy, the White House stayed 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.
In a statement, Bush cited his "respect" for Lott's "very difficult decision" and praised his work on national security, taxes and other issues. "Trent is a valued friend, and a man I respect," the president said. (Bush comments)
CNN Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.