December 20, 2002 at 5:30 PM EST - Updated June 18 at 7:15 AM
By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Bowing to harsh criticism from fellow senators and the Bush White House, Trent Lott resigned as Senate Republican leader Friday after colleagues worried about the repercussions of his racially insensitive remarks openly lined up behind Sen. Bill Frist.
"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," said Lott, whose fall was historically unprecedented on Capitol Hill.
President Bush released a statement hailing Lott's service and saying he respected "the very difficult decision" the Mississippian had to make.
Lott himself stayed away from the cameras. At his Pascagoula, Miss., home, his wife gave reporters a written statement from Lott (pictured, above) saying, "My official written statement was released from Washington at 11 EST. There will be no underlying statement to the television media. Please go home."
The note, handwritten on U.S. Senate stationary with "Office of the Majority Leader" across the top, was signed "Trent Lott."
With Lott's departure, Frist, a close ally of Bush, was the only publicly declared candidate to replace him and quickly emerged as the favorite to do so, lawmakers and aides said.
The Tennessee lawmaker, a wealthy heart surgeon, revealed his candidacy Thursday evening and had garnered public support from several key senators, including Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, No. 2 Senate Republican Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and John Warner of Virginia.
McConnell, a Lott supporter said to be interested in succeeding him, issued a statement saying he would not seek the job and endorsed Frist. GOP lawmakers and aides said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another Lott supporter, was considering a challenge, but several said that Frist seemed likely to prevail.
"I think it's pretty much over," said one GOP lawmaker speaking on condition of anonymity. "With McConnell and Nickles behind Frist, I think it's done."
Nickles, a longtime Lott rival, was the first GOP senator to call for new leadership elections.
The 51 GOP senators who will serve in the next plan to meet Jan. 6 to elect their next leader.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called Lott's resignation "the right decision for Sen. Lott and for the Senate." But he said the new GOP leader must "now do more than merely disavow Sen. Lott's words. He or she must confront the Republican Party's record on race and embrace policies that promote genuine healing and greater opportunities for all Americans."
Lott became the first Senate party leader ever to step down in the wake of a wrenching national controversy.
"We've never had a Senate Republican leader or Senate Democratic leader step down like this before," said Senate historian Don Ritchie.
Then-Senate Republican leader Bob Dole vacated the job in 1996 to focus fulltime on his presidential candidacy.
Lott's methodical resignation -- a terse statement released from the office of Senate Republican leader here -- culminated a weeks-long controversy over Lott's racially insensitive comments.
His decision amounted to a 180-degree about-face.
Earlier this week, Lott had vowed to stay and fight to keep the top leadership job. His fall followed a tribute that Lott gave earlier this month at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
The Mississippian at the time hailed the venerable South Carolinian and said he thought the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had won his campaign for the presidency in 1948. Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat at the time, on a mostly segregationist platform.
Senior Republicans said Lott's decision caught many senior White House officials by surprise, including top political adviser Karl Rove and political director Ken Mehlman, who were not given advance notice by Lott's office. As Lott's decision leaked to news organizations, his office informed the White House that the senator was leaving his leadership post but not the Senate.
Despite speculation that Lott would demand a committee chairmanship or some other consolation prize, he stepped down with no strings attached, one official said the White House was told.
Lott, 61, has been the Senate GOP leader since 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., left the Senate to devote full time to his unsuccessful presidential bid.
At the Thurmond birthday party, Lott said: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
The remarks drew immediate criticism from black leaders and Democrats. They were quickly joined by conservatives worried that the comments would create a distracting firestorm that would harm the White House's and GOP's efforts to advance their legislative agenda.
Incoming House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that Lott's stepping down was an "important step" but that Republicans still needed to do more to address the issue of race.
While Lott initially attempted to stomp out the controversy with a terse press release and telephone interviews on radio and television, it began to spin out of control after Bush issued a forceful denunciation of his remarks last week.
Fearing Lott's comments had hurt the party and his own re-election prospects, Bush called the remarks "offensive" and "wrong." At the same time, he instructed White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to say Lott should not resign.
Senate leadership elections, conducted by secret ballot, are notoriously unpredictable affairs in which promised votes fail to materialize and lawmakers' decisions are based on personal relationships, past conflicts and any number of unpredictable factors.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)