WASHINGTON -- A beleaguered Trent Lott stepped aside Friday as Senate Republican leader two weeks after igniting a political firestorm with racially charged remarks, and Tennessee's Bill Frist prepared to inherit the job when the GOP takes over the chamber next month.
After insisting as recently as Thursday night that he would be majority leader next year, the 61-year-old Lott reversed field Friday morning with a three-sentence written statement. His resignation under fire -- unprecedented for a Senate party leader -- came amid cascading pressure from senators publicly calling for him to quit, and eight days after President Bush called Lott's remarks "offensive" and "wrong."
"In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective Jan. 6, 2003," the Mississippian said.
Frist, an eight-year Senate veteran and millionaire heart surgeon who has worked closely with the White House, had garnered public expressions of support from at least 31 colleagues by Friday afternoon -- more than half the 51 GOP senators who will serve in the new Congress. His backers ranged from 24-year Senate veteran John Warner of Virginia to newly elected Sen. James Talent of Missouri.
Frist's support seemed so overwhelming that rather than staging their announced Jan. 6 meeting to choose a new leader, Republicans planned a conference call for Monday afternoon during which Frist would be formally chosen for the job, said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a member of the GOP leadership.
Santorum and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the final two senators viewed as potential rivals, dropped out of the race Friday and endorsed Frist.
Frist, 50, would not comment publicly on his own future, but praised Lott for making "the selfless decision."
Lott, a 30-year congressional veteran, said he would retain his Senate seat, but there was no evidence that he would receive a committee chairmanship or another high-profile job.
He spent Friday in seclusion in his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss. After his written statement was released, his wife gave reporters outside his house a handwritten note on "Office of the Majority Leader" stationery signed by Lott saying he would comment no further and adding, "Please go home."
His abrupt departure from the leadership post underscored the rapidity with which the White House and his colleagues concluded he was threatening their own electoral futures, their legislative agenda and their hopes of expanding their appeal to moderate voters.
"This is a day that the United States Senate with Trent Lott's resignation has buried -- graveyard dead and gone -- the days of discrimination and segregation. Those days are gone and gone forever," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va.
Allen's comment illustrated the GOP's eagerness to avoid any taint of racial discrimination from the flap.
At retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Dec. 5, Lott hailed the South Carolinian's failed 1948 presidential bid, in which he ran as a segregationist. Had Thurmond won, Lott said, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."
After initial complaints from blacks, Democrats and conservative groups, Lott issued a stream of apologies. But the controversy would not go away, fueled by Bush's condemnation, the White House's silence on the story, and last weekend's call by longtime Lott rival, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., for new leadership elections.
Bush issued a written statement hailing Lott as a friend and effective champion of his legislative goals, saying Friday, "I respect the very difficult decision Trent made on behalf of the American people."
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Lott made "the right decision." But he also said the new GOP leader "must confront the Republican Party's record on race, and embrace policies that promote genuine healing and greater opportunity for all Americans."
Lott's resignation marked the first time a Senate party leader vacated his job because of a national controversy, said Senate historian Donald Ritchie. The last one to quit was Bob Dole, R-Kan., who left in 1996 to devote full time to his presidential bid, which failed. Lott replaced Dole.
With a voting record that is about as conservative as Lott's, Frist has had relatively little national exposure and would offer the GOP a fresh face who often comes across in a reassuring manner.
When an anthrax-laden letter surfaced in Daschle's office a year ago, Frist -- who periodically performs medical procedures in hospitals in the United States and Africa -- led an effort to calm his colleagues and worried Americans.
Frist has been a leading Republican on health-care issues, and many Republicans say they believe he may consider a presidential run in 2008. He also led the Senate GOP's campaign effort that culminated in their capture of Senate control in last month's elections.
His late father and brother were among the founders of HCA, the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain. On Wednesday, the company agreed to pay the government $631 million to settle allegations of health-care fraud.
Signaling that GOP opponents would not give Frist a free ride, some consumer groups were criticizing him for owning stocks in the firm.
And Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called for a federal investigation of voter intimidation during this year's Senate elections by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Frist ran.