Senate Republicans draw battle lines over Lott

At least 17 Republican senators are leaning toward voting for incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to remain party leader next year, while only seven senators indicated that they plan to oppose him, according to an informal CongressDaily survey conducted Wednesday. But the tally belies the difficulty Lott faces in finding the nine remaining votes to give him the 26 he needs to cling to power.

While Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., became the first Republican senator to ask Lott to step down, 26 current Republican senators remain either undecided or silent about how they would vote in a closed-door referendum on Lott's tenure slated for Jan. 6. Among that group are Sens. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who are both thought to have their eye on Lott's job. A 51st Republican senator will be appointed later this week to fill in for former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who was elected governor.

Lott, meanwhile, speaking to the Biloxi, Miss., Chamber of Commerce, vowed Wednesday to serve out his six-year Senate term, no matter what.

"I'm telling you here this morning, I'm hanging in there," Lott said. "I'm going to find a way for myself, my family, my friends, you the people of Mississippi and America to benefit from this experience."

Meanwhile, a number of Republicans are beginning to feel pressure from home state newspapers and voters to oust Lott. On Tuesday, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., became the first Lott supporter to backtrack from comments in support of the Mississippi Republican. Fitzgerald, who must confront Chicago's strong African-American vote to win a second term in 2004, said, "The problem now is that Sen. Lott's intent may no longer even be the issue, and the broader issue is whether he can remain an effective Senate majority leader no matter what his intent was, no matter what his character may be, and no matter how remorseful he remains."

Sen.-elect Jim Talent, R-Mo., who also has a large African-American constituency, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "There is now a substantial question as to whether Sen. Lott has the capacity to move that [Republican] agenda forward. And I am prepared to voice my concerns at the conference meeting."

In a local radio interview in his home state, Chafee said today that Lott should not continue as Senate Republican leader.

"It's time for a change," Chafee said. "I think the biggest problem has been that his apologies haven't connected."

On the other side of the Capitol, House members have begun to call for Lott's departure. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., who is expected to challenge outgoing Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, R-Nev., said Lott should step down because he will "impede the GOP agenda." Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also called for Lott to step down.

Still, for every senator who has publicly questioned Lott's ability to remain, two Republicans are on the record in support of the embattled Republican. Despite a re-election contest in a racially diverse state, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told The Philadelphia Inquirer he plans to back Lott even though "I know I'm losing political skin on this." According to the CongressDaily survey, 14 senators said Lott should remain as majority leader and another four said they are leaning in Lott's favor.

Not all the senators who support Lott were willing to say so publicly. Among Lott allies who have publicly indicated that they would support him are Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, John Ensign,R-Nev.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Specter. Another three senators are inclined to back Lott, but did not want to say so publicly. Beside Chafee, no senator opposed to Lott agreed to be identified.