WASHINGTON -- Now that they have deposed one party leader and are to elect another today, Senate Republicans are working to limit the damage that Trent Lott's words had on GOP efforts to court minority voters.
"I think this will present no handicap whatsoever in our ongoing effort to convince the nonwhite citizens of our country that the Republican Party is the place to be," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the incoming No. 2 Republican leader.
"In the long sweep of American history, this is going to be a blip," McConnell, R-Ky., told "Fox News Sunday."
Senate Republicans planned to elevate Bill Frist of Tennessee in a conference call Monday afternoon, making him majority leader when the GOP retakes Senate control in the new Congress that convenes in early January.
Lott, R-Miss., resigned Friday, more than two weeks after his verbal blunder that implied he favored racial segregation. Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist run for president in 1948 had put the entire Republican Party on the defensive, from the White House down.
Lott will return to the Senate in January, but not in a leadership position. Republican sources said it appeared that Lott, a senator since 1989, had waited too long to end the controversy and lost any leverage he might have had to cut a deal to become a committee chairman.
"There is no apparent position of influence to which we can elect him," McConnell said. "He will, in my view, have enormous influence as someone who knows a lot about how the Senate works."
The incoming Judiciary Committee chairman, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, praised President Bush -- as the party's top leader -- for reaching out to all people and he criticized Democrats who argue that Republicans' positions hold little appeal for minorities.
"The attitude is that only Democrats care about minorities. That's pure B.S.," Hatch said on ABC's "This Week."
"I think every Republican is working hard to try and be good to minorities and do what's right. We can't support some of the far-left, you know, extreme approaches toward race, but we certainly do believe in equality."
As majority leader, Frist can make a difference in bringing more people into the Republican camp, Hatch said.
"It'll be a different face than what we've had, and I'm not criticizing what we've had, but I think Bill has a kind of a more moderate record and a more moderate approach toward things," Hatch said.
A leading Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, agreed. "But I think he's going to have to reach out. It's not enough to say that we're all colorblind or anything else."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said the concerns raised about Lott's remarks have "re-energized many of us here in the Senate to build this country from the bottom up and provide equal opportunity for every American to succeed in the American dream."
Lott's fellow Mississippian, GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, also said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that it was important that Republicans show "we have genuine concern and a plan" to address the interests of minorities.
The Lott controversy may have a direct influence the president's judicial picks, suggested Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. He said he thought nominees' background "will be examined more closely regarding racial issues."
One test could come soon: Bush's possible renomination of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering for a federal appeals court vacancy.
Hatch said he thinks Bush should again submit the nomination, which was defeated by a party-line 10-9 vote in the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee in March.
Pickering, a Lott friend, was opposed by civil rights groups, which accused him of racial insensitivity.
"He was very badly treated before the United States Senate," Hatch said.
Leahy, who becomes the committee's ranking Democrat, said: "I'd vote against him."