Frist has votes to succeed Lott
Tennessee Republican has backing of 32 senators
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and second-term lawmaker with close ties to the Bush White House, should be elected as the new Senate GOP leader in a conference call Monday, CNN has learned.
Frist, 50, will replace Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who decided Friday to step down as the Senate's Republican leader because of a firestorm surrounding his remarks in praise of the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond.
The chairman of the Senate GOP caucus, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, scheduled the call late Friday. Frist has public commitments from at least 32 of the 51 GOP senators, ensuring his election unless minds change over the weekend.
If elected, Frist will become majority leader when Republicans take control of the Senate in January.
Santorum, considered a possible challenger to Frist for the post, instead endorsed the Tennesseean. Two other potential challengers, Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have also thrown their support to Frist.
"I support him 100 percent. He will provide the leadership necessary to bring Senate Republicans together and move us forward," Nickles said in a written statement.
"Now is the time to move forward. It is my belief that Senator Bill Frist is the right man at the right time to help our party do so, and I will support him for majority leader," McConnell said in a statement.
Frist, a graduate of the Harvard Medical School who ran the heart-lung transplant program at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, was elected to the Senate in the Republican landslide of 1994, unseating Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser. He was easily re-elected in 2000, with 65 percent of the vote. (Frist profile)
Frist has been a close ally of the Bush White House and has become an influential voice within the Senate, particularly on health care issues. During the 2002 campaign, he was head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, receiving plaudits for a campaign operation that led Senate Republicans back into the majority.
Frist: Lott's 'selfless decision'
Republican senators had originally been scheduled to meet January 6 to discuss whether to continue with Lott at the helm or select a new leader. In the wake of Lott's decision to step aside, the vote was moved up.
Lott, who had vowed to fight to keep his post as Senate GOP leader, issued a statement Friday saying he decided to step aside "in the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country." He said he would remain in the Senate, representing Mississippi. (Full story)
Had Lott resigned from the Senate, his state's Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove, would have selected his successor, which could have thrown the Senate into a 50-50 tie. (Lott statement)
Frist, who had announced Thursday that he intended to seek the leader's post, said Lott's decision "was a difficult one for his family and for him personally."
Calling Lott a "valued friend," President Bush issued a statement saying the decision was "very difficult." (Bush statement)
Lott's demise began two weeks ago at the 100th birthday party for Thurmond, who is retiring from the Senate. In 1948, as South Carolina governor, Thurmond made a third-party bid for the White House centered on his support for racial segregation. (Timeline: Fall of a leader)
Lott said Mississippians were "proud" of the fact that their state was one of four Thurmond carried -- and that if he had been elected, America would have avoided "problems" during the ensuing years.
Lott has since repeatedly apologized and insisted that he was not endorsing Thurmond's segregationist views, which the South Carolinian has since repudiated. But Lott's support among his GOP colleagues eroded as the controversy refused to die.
"I don't think any of us were really happy with the apologies," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-Rhode Island.
Bush issued a public rebuke to Lott over the remarks, but the White House continued to maintain that he did not need to step down as GOP leader.
However, anxious to defuse the controversy, which was seen as damaging to efforts to reach out to minority voters, the White House also did not come to his defense.
While Frist is well-known as a White House confidant, GOP senators insisted that the Bush administration did not push Frist's promotion.
"He told me that he has not talked to the White House in three weeks' time," said Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, on CNN's Larry King Live.
"I saw no evidence that the White House was involved in this," said McConnell, who will be the new Senate majority whip, also on Larry King Live.
GOP senators say they hope Lott's decision to step aside will give them the opportunity to improve the party's relationship with black voters, which was strained by the controversy. (Gallery: Reactions to the Lott-Frist news)
"Our task is to make it unambiguously clear to the American people that we are an inclusive party in the spirit of our founder, Abraham Lincoln," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.
But Democrats insist that a change of leadership alone isn't enough.
"The new Republican leader in the Senate must do more now than merely disavow Sen. Lott's words," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in a written statement.
"He or she must confront the Republican Party's record on race and embrace policies that promote genuine healing and greater opportunity for all Americans."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who is considering a run against Bush in 2004, called on the new Republican leader and the White House to "join us in real and meaningful ways to address the issues that make a difference in creating opportunity and securing basic rights for all Americans."
"The question now is whether this administration will move substantively to address the issues raised in the last days or whether their response will be purely political and cosmetic," Kerry said in a written statement.
CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.