WASHINGTON -- Breaking ranks, a veteran Senate Republican called Sunday for new leadership elections, saying Sen. Trent Lott has been so weakened by a race-based controversy that "his ability to enact our agenda" is in doubt.
"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership. And I hope we have an opportunity to choose," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing GOP whip who nearly challenged Lott for leader in this fall.
Republican leader Lott, R-Miss., had no immediate reaction to the comments, which instantly added a new dimension to his struggle to survive the fallout from remarks that touched on racial segregation.
At the White House, spokesman Taylor Gross said the administration does not react "to every statement put forth by every senator."
But by day's end, two other Republicans, Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said the rank-and-file should meet to address the controversy swirling around the party's leader. Neither called for new elections.
While Nickles has served with Lott in the GOP leadership for several years, they have been rivals as well as colleagues. Nickles' statement appeared timed to blunt a Sunday broadcast offensive by Lott's allies seeking to lay the controversy to rest.
"I think he's going to continue to lead us, and I think he can be a very effective as our leader in the Senate," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC's "This Week."
Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar this month when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket.
"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 added in remarks at 100th birthday for the retiring South Carolina senator.
Lott's most recent apology came Friday, when he strongly denounced racism and segregation at a news conference in his home state, and asked for forgiveness and forbearance.
But Nickles' comments seemed likely to propel the Republican leadership drama into a new phase. A closed-door meeting of the 51 GOP senators in the new Congress must be called if five make a written request.
Warner also suggested a meeting of the rank and file. "I feel we should come together as a group and make that decision and put to rest, once and for all, this controversy," he said on CNN.
Hagel said in a statement that he supports bringing GOP senators together as soon as possible. Lawmakers "must either reconfirm their confidence in Senator Trent Lott's leadership or select a new leader. ... In the interest of the Republican Party, the president's agenda and the nation this issue must be resolved quickly."
Alternatively, GOP senators are scheduled to meet privately on Jan. 8, the day after the new Congress is sworn in, and Nickles could raise the subject of leadership elections then.Nickles' spokesman, Brook Simmons, said he did not know whether Nickles would run for leader if there were an election.