Some want Trent Lott issue resolved before January

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Embattled Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said Tuesday he believes he has the votes to survive a furor over racially insensitive remarks, despite increasingly blunt suggestions from officials close to the White House that he give way.

While some Republicans said they hoped a politically damaging struggle could be resolved before the rank and file meet on Jan. 6, Lott, R-Miss., said he was digging in. "I am the son of a shipyard worker ... I have had to fight all of my life. And I am not stopping now," he said.

A handful of Lott supporters spoke out in his defense during the day, but there were ample signs of weakness in his position, and officials described a nonstop round of discussions among senators eager for a successor to emerge as the party's leader when the Senate convenes under Republican control in January.

"There is now a substantial question as to whether Senator Lott has the capacity to move" the GOP agenda in the new Congress, said Sen.-elect Jim Talent, R-Mo., one of several lawmakers whose election last month helped deliver a majority to the Republicans.

Even some allies, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded Lott's interview Monday night on Black Entertainment Television did not appear to have advanced his cause. And his declaration of support for affirmative action on the program drew silence from conservatives who -- like the Mississippian himself -- voted against such programs in the past.

Some party officials sounded increasingly eager to usher Lott off the leadership stage.

A senior Republican official with ties to the White House said there was a widespread consensus among GOP rank and file that Lott must go. The opinion is shared by senior White House aides, the official said, but he insisted that neither President Bush, political guru Karl Rove or his deputies are even indirectly involved in a campaign against Lott.

Second-guessing going on

A second Republican close to the White House said Bush's advisers are now second-guessing a decision last week to give Lott a chance to survive. Despite strong criticism of the remarks by Bush, spokesman Ari Fleischer was instructed to say the Mississippian should not resign.

Lott triggered the controversy at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948. He said Mississippians were proud to have voted for Thurmond at the time, adding, "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."

He has since apologized repeatedly, including a news conference at home in Mississippi where he asked for forgiveness, and on BET.

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