Embattled Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced this morning that he is stepping down from his leadership post, just a day after Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) launched a campaign to oust him.
Lott said he would serve the four years left in his term, thus helping to insure that the Republican Party maintains its narrow control of the Senate.
"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," Lott said in a written statement. "To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate."
Lott, 61, had come under fire for comments he made Dec. 5 in support of Strom Thurmond's pro-segregation presidential campaign in 1948 during Thurmond's birthday celebration. Since then, the comments have erupted into one of the most remarkable and unusual political storms in recent memory. Lott had battled to keep his leadership job but in the past week a growing number of GOP senators had concluded that if he stayed, he would severely damage the party.
Lott had been the Republican Senate leader since 1996.
President Bush called the senator shortly after he issued his resignation, according to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, and had a warm 10-minute conversation. In a statement released by Fleischer, Bush said that he considers Lott a "valued friend and a man I respect. I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation."
Earlier this week, Lott had complained that officials in the White House were undermining his efforts to remain leader. His allies said he was hurt that the president and other officials had refused to publicly support him and complained that there were behind-the-scenes efforts from the administration to oust him. White House officials had denied they were playing any role in Lott's future.
Frist, a 50-year-old heart surgeon and close ally of President Bush, yesterday called numerous GOP senators to ask for their support to become the next Senate majority leader if Lott were to leave.
He had no immediate comment today on Lott's decision, but senators from across the GOP spectrum announced their support for Frist. Among them were Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), a close ally of Lott's, Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), who holds the number two spot in the leadership and had been considering his own run for the post, Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.), Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.) and both Virginia senators, John Warner and George Allen. The Republican senators will vote on a new leader Jan. 6.
"There's a fast-moving momentum building up for Bill Frist," Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) told reporters last night after meeting with Frist at the Republican Senate campaign headquarters near the Capitol. "I can assure you the [Frist] team is growing very quickly."
Known for a cool demeanor that masks his intense work habits, Frist can get by on four hours of sleep a night, a holdover from his days as a heart-lung transplant surgeon. The Senate's only doctor, he comforted tense officials at a meeting in the Capitol basement after an anthrax-laced letter panicked Capitol Hill. His Senate Web site became a clearinghouse for information about anthrax symptoms and treatment.
Several Republicans said Frist would be a huge help in selling an expected Bush admininstration health care initiative to Congress and the public. Some Senate aides said Frist would help the party portray a more moderate image if he succeeded Lott.
Aides said his goals include adding a prescription drug benefit for Medicare and making health care more affordable and available to low-income people. He promotes childhood vaccinations and wants to encourage the development of new vaccines. Much of Frist's agenda concerns prevention and treatment of AIDS, and he travels to Africa once or twice a year at his own expense to perform operations as a medical missionary.
Frist, who has three sons, earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton University in 1974, graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School in 1978 and joined the teaching faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in his native Nashville. He was elected in 1994 by defeating Sen. Jim Sasser (D).
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.