Senate Republicans set special meeting to discuss Lott’s future

Senate Republicans called a special meeting for Jan. 6 to discuss Trent Lott’s future, as the GOP leader came under more fire Monday for his praise of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign of 1948. With most of the heat coming from fellow conservatives, Lott went on Black Entertainment Television to again apologize for the comment he made at a 100th birthday celebration for Thurmond.

“I’m asking people to forgive my mistake and give me a chance, see if I can make a difference,” Lott said during the half-hour BET interview Monday in which he again said he would not step down. Only one Republican senator, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, has called on Lott to relinquish his leadership position. But a number of Republican senators Monday supported the special meeting the day before the new Senate begins its work.

“Sen. Lott has apologized and is doing everything he can to make this situation right,” said a statement from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference. “This meeting will provide Republican senators the opportunity for a full and open discussion about Sen. Lott and his ability to lead the Republican majority.”

During the interview on BET, Lott said he welcomed the Republican conference, saying it will help the party “move an agenda that will be good for Americans _ all Americans _ equal opportunity for everybody.” “Obviously, we’ve got to sit down and talk about this,” Lott said.

The calling of a Republican conference _ with a highly unusual agenda of possibly removing a leader _ is another sign that Lott has been unable to get past the furor triggered by his Dec. 5 comment. In noting that his home state of Mississippi favored Thurmond’s pro-segregation campaign, Lott said: “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Lott has spent the week-and-a-half since retreating from that remark, including a news conference Friday in which he said, “I apologize for opening old wounds and hurting many Americans who feel so deeply in this area.”

As Lott struggles to keep his job, he should not count on too much help from the Republican White House. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer Monday said Bush does not believe Lott should resign, but found his statements “offensive and repugnant.”

“The President is going to continue to elevate the country, and to speak out about the bigger picture of the importance of improving race relations for all Americans,” Fleischer said.

Democrats and civil rights groups have sought the removal of Lott’s leadership title. But a growing number of the Mississippian’s fellow conservatives have called on him to step aside. Some said Lott has lost his effectiveness. Others said he can only make it more difficult for Republicans to reach out to African-American voters. “We’re genuinely appalled by what he said and we don’t want him to be the face of the Republican Party,” said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. National Review, the magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., editorialized that, “we have long considered Lott a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader, and his controversial Strom Thurmond birthday remarks are a spectacular confirmation of that judgment.”

Republican senators are also under pressure from a variety of civil-rights groups. Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP, called on Texas’ two senators, Hutchison and John Cornyn, to vote against Lott continuing as leader. Neither has called for such a step, citing Lott’s apologies. “It has nothing to do with conservatives or liberals,” Bledsoe said. “There are a lot of conservatives who are just fine on race issues, but that’s not the case with (Lott).”

During the interview on BET, Lott defended many of the votes that have been attacked by civil-rights organizations. He said it was wrong to have opposed integration of his national fraternity while at the University of Mississippi. He said he has opposed any new federal holidays, including the one for Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He said the Voting Rights Act should apply to the entire country, not just southern states.

Sen. Nickles, who served as Lott’s deputy in recent years, said the continuing controversy has weakened Lott “to the point that it may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans.” Some Republican officials did cite one potential danger in trying to force Lott from office: The fear he might leave the Senate altogether, giving the Democratic governor of Mississippi the chance to appoint a replacement from his party.

Such a move would cut the Republican majority to 50-49, with independent James Jeffords siding with the Democrats. Republicans could control the majority only because Vice President Dick Cheney could break ties, a road they have been down before; the GOP lost control under similar circumstances in 2001, when Jeffords left the GOP.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., seen by some as a potential replacement for Lott, shot down reports that he supported new leadership elections. “My Republican colleagues and I are actively engaged in deciding what is in the best interest of the Senate as an institution and the country,” Frist said. “I am confident a consensus will emerge, but no decisions have been made yet.”