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GOP looks to Frist to repair Lott damage

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says the GOP is ready to move forward.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says the GOP is ready to move forward.

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CNN's Kathleen Koch says Democrats have fired political salvos against Sen. Bill Frist, heir apparent to Trent Lott's Majority Leader job (December 22)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Members of the Senate assessed the impact of Trent Lott's fall from power as Republicans prepared Sunday to anoint a new leader to fill the power vacuum he left behind.

Members of the Senate GOP conference are scheduled to hold a conference call Monday to vote on Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist's leadership bid, but most of his Republican colleagues have already promised to support him.

One lawmaker predicted he and his colleagues "will affirm how enthusiastic we are about Bill Frist's leadership."

Frist, who spent Sunday at his home in Nashville with his family, said he would make no formal statements until after the vote.

But, Frist said with a chuckle, "This is something I didn't go out there and seek, so the whole thing is really interesting."

Frist's Republican colleagues said Sunday they were looking to the future.

"I expect that [Lott] would like to put this behind him and move forward, and frankly, that's what all the rest of us would like to do as well," Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell told "Fox News Sunday." "We're going to begin that process Monday when we choose Bill Frist as our new leader."

McConnell, the incoming senate majority whip, described a flurry of consultation among his colleagues between December 5, when Lott made his much-criticized birthday tribute to South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, and Friday, when he announced his decision to step down.

"I came home to Louisville about 10 days before Senator Lott stepped down, thinking I was going to have a nice holiday, and essentially never left the house after that, on the phone constantly. We were all calling each other," McConnell said.

"I didn't pick up any evidence that the White House, certainly not the president or any of his assistants, were involved in this," he said. "I believe that it was an internal senate Republican discussion."

President Bush had publicly chastised Lott for his comments, but the White House never called on him to step down.

Privately, however, sources were saying that the Bush administration would prefer Frist in the majority leader post, though officials said the White House played no active role in his decision to step down.

"I think there is a commitment on the part of the White House to racial justice in this country, and no ambiguity," Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." "And it seemed to me very important that the president speak out as he did, and I think that played a role."

But Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said it was unlikely that Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- both of whom criticized Lott for his remarks -- would have done so without the blessing of the White House.

Fruitless apologies

A number of political observers and analysts have concluded that the turning point for Lott came when Frist announced Thursday that he'd seek to challenge him for the job of senate majority leader.

"I don't think that was necessarily a critical moment," said McConnell, who had been one of Lott's most fervent supporters.

When he talked to Lott on Friday morning, "I was very clear about the obvious, which was that he needed to step aside."

Lott touched a raw nerve in what he later described as off-the-cuff comments at the party, when he said that the country would have been better off had Thurmond -- running on a segregationist ticket -- been elected president in 1948.

A series of public apologies from Lott failed to repair the damage.

"It's clear that making a mistake of this magnitude on that subject puts a leader in a position that is unsustainable," McConnell said.

Democrats point to differences

By late last week, Democrats were signaling that the Lott dispute gave them an issue to illustrate the differences between the parties' positions on race.

"If anyone thinks that one person stepping down from a leadership position cleanses the Republican Party of their constant exploitation of race, then I think you're naive," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said Saturday.

McConnell called Clinton's comments "quite irritating."

"Many of us do not support quotas and preferences, but our record is very good," he said. "And we think that we're going to continue to make progress, not only with African-Americans, which the president's done a terrific job of reaching out to, but to Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans."

"I think what we've learned is that there's still a simmering problem in America when it comes to race, and that the solutions that we've had to try to deal with the problem in the past have really not solved that problem," Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"I think what we also need to realize that what's important to all Americans, African-Americans and others, is the economy, more jobs, better-paying jobs, and we need to stick to basic conservative approaches to dealing with issues like the economy," Thad Cochran, the senior senator from Mississippi, told CBS.

Graham said that the impending selection of Frist, a 50-year-old transplant surgeon, as majority leader could represent a change of course for Republicans.

"One particular area that I have worked with Senator Frist is on health care issues," he said on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

"Maybe his ascendancy will help represent a breakthrough on things" such as a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, Graham said.

"There are actually hands-on examples of how [Frist] will make a difference," Lugar told CNN, noting the surgeon-turned-senator's work with AIDS patients in Africa and on medical issues in the United States.

"These are issues that are not either black or white, but they are issues that are compassionate," Lugar said.

When announcing his decision Friday not to assume the post of majority leader in the 108th Congress, Lott said he would keep his senate seat, a move that allayed GOP fears that its 51-member senate majority could be eroded.

"Trent is doing us an enormous favor remaining in the Senate and honoring his six-year commitment to the people of Mississippi," McConnell said.

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