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Santorum: 'Opportunity' for GOP after Lott flap

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, on the Capitol subway
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, on the Capitol subway

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum helps to shape the GOP message through his post as chairman of the Republican Conference.

However, the Senate's No. 3 Republican last week stepped aside as chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee in favor of ousted GOP leader Trent Lott. The committee controls the assignment and administration of prized office space on the Senate side of the Capitol and resolves disputes on Senate rules and procedure.

With the 108th Congress underway, CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl caught up with Santorum on the Capitol subway.

KARL: We're glad to have you here.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

KARL: And one thing that you started off the session with was giving up a Senate chairmanship, which is something that has almost never been done in the United States Senate. But you gave up your chairmanship as the senator...

SANTORUM: Someone told me the other day that I said I might lose my office of senator because I had conduct unbecoming a senator. (LAUGHTER)

KARL: Now, the chairman of the Rules Committee has been called the mayor of Capitol Hill. Was that a little bit hard to give up, though?

SANTORUM: Look, it's obviously something that I would have enjoyed doing. But, again, Trent, frankly, was better qualified to do the job than me and, I think, could add a lot more to the position, and, frankly, has probably more time to spend on it than I do.

KARL: Now, clearly, the Trent Lott controversy, many have said, cost the Republican Party in terms of outreach to African-Americans. What are you going to do to repair the damage?

SANTORUM: I see this as an opportunity for us to focus our energy and attention on looking at our ideas through the prism of how it affects this community, which we really didn't do a very good job of in the past. So, I see this as a -- I really believe all these things work out for good. That's what -- God has a plan for this. And I believe that this is going to be a good thing for the Senate Republicans and for Republicans in general. And I think its' going to be a great thing for the African-American community in this country.

KARL: Now, you said of Judge [Charles] Pickering [President Bush's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit] that he was out front -- this is your quote -- "out front leading the charge for racial healing in Mississippi." You make him sound like he was Mississippi's Martin Luther King. Isn't that an overstatement?

SANTORUM: Well, but he was out front. This is a man who testified against the grand wizard or something like that of the Ku Klux Klan.

KARL: But wouldn't anybody testify against the KKK, even in the '60s?

SANTORUM: Well, but this is Mississippi in the '60s, where, as you know, racial division was very acute. And for someone to stand up and do that, you can say, well, anyone else could do it. You're looking at it through the views of someone in the year 2003.

Look at it through the views of someone in 1967 in Mississippi and this man took a stance that, yes, all of us would now take, but we weren't there in 1967. You give the credit for the man at the time he did it. And the fact of the matter is, this is about conservatism.

This is not about racism. This is about a conservative jurist. And I think, if you look at the record of all of these civil rights groups, they have opposed virtually every Bush nominee to the appellate court who had a conservative record.

KARL: Now, after Trent Lott announced that he was stepping down, you, for a brief period, considered running against [Tennessee Senator] Bill Frist to be the Republican leader, the majority leader. Why?

SANTORUM: Well, what I did is, I thought it was important for me to talk to some of my colleagues who were close to me, folks who were very strong supporters of me, and determine whether the course that seemed to be a fait accompli, which was Bill being the leader, was the right thing to do or whether there should be a contest.

KARL: Your supporters, during those few hours, were portraying you as the conservative candidate in the race and saying that Bill Frist was perhaps too moderate to lead the Republicans.

SANTORUM: Yes, Bill made it very clear to me when I called him that -- he said: I've been sitting here looking at "The National Journal," looking at these voters indexes. I'm more conservative than you are. (LAUGHTER) So, he wanted to make it clear that he was not going to cede conservative credentials to me.

KARL: Sen. Santorum, thank you for doing the "Subway Series."

SANTORUM: Thanks. Nice of you to let me off.



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