Republicans to meet January 6 to decide Lott's future

With the controversy surrounding incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., showing no sign of abating, Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has scheduled a Jan. 6 meeting to decide Lott's fate.

Although only a handful of senators have publicly called for the meeting, Republicans Monday said it was becoming increasingly difficult for Lott to remain as majority leader when the 108th Congress convenes in early January.

Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana Monday joined the group of Republicans calling for a Conference meeting to decide whether Lott should remain as party leader.

"It is not fair for us to leave Sen. Lott's future as Senate majority leader uncertain, nor is it helpful for the party to let the issue go unresolved," Burns said in a statement. Burns joins Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in calling for a session.

Under party rules, Santorum must call a meeting if at least five Republicans sign a petition. Santorum, a Lott ally, initially declined to schedule one. But as the list of Republicans calling for a Conference meeting grew, Santorum relented and decided to schedule it for the day before the start of next year's session.

"The sooner the better," said a Hagel spokesman.

Meanwhile, aides to several other Republican senators told CongressDaily that those senators support a Conference session-and Lott's dismissal.

Privately, Republicans were harshly critical of Lott and his chances of surviving as the controversy enters its second week. "He's toast, it's just a matter of when he figures it out," said one GOP lobbyist. "It will be very difficult for him to survive," added another.

Several Senate aides said Lott should step aside because the controversy has damaged the party. On the House side, one GOP leadership aide acknowledged that Lott's problems are a potential liability for Republicans, but also could offer the White House the chance to highlight Republican efforts to court minority voters.

"They call more attention to these kinds of issues," the aide said. "If handled correctly, which I think they will, they will draw attention to [Republican] outreach efforts."

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Lott if he steps aside, although Nickles and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky-who is scheduled to replace Nickles as Republican whip-also are considered possible successors, according to sources.

As the outgoing chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Frist was credited for the GOP's Election Day triumph and enjoys strong support among Republicans in the White House and Capitol Hill, Republicans said. Unlike Nickles, Frist also has support among Northeastern moderates.

Several Republicans said today that Nickles is considered too conservative-and hurt his chances by being the first to call for Lott's resignation.

In a statement, Frist said he has not made up his mind on how to proceed. "My Republican colleagues are actively engaged in deciding what is in the best interest of the Senate as an institution and the country," Frist said. "I am confident a consensus will emerge, but no decisions have been made yet, and I have endorsed no specific proposal at this time."

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