Supporters say Lott would stay in Senate if ousted as leader

In a reversal, supporters of incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he likely would remain in the Senate until a Republican successor could be found if he is deposed as GOP leader.

"After 30 years, he is not going to go out that way," said one former aide, referring to speculation that Lott would resign from the Senate entirely if he is ousted from the leadership at a special Jan. 6 meeting of the GOP Conference.

Lott's departure from the chamber would allow Democratic Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to choose a Democratic replacement, erasing the GOP's majority in the Senate. Instead, Lott allies now say that Lott-if forced from the leadership-likely would announce his intention to resign, but remain in the Senate at least through a November 2003 special election. The move would preserve the GOP majority and give either Republican Reps. Charles (Chip) Pickering or Roger Wicker a decent shot of replacing him in a special election next year.

Under another scenario being floated, Lott could remain in the Senate until after Mississippi's 2003 state election determines whether Musgrove will be replaced by former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, a close Lott ally.

"If he decided to pack it in, he would announce that he would stay until November," said one Republican close to the embattled senator. If Barbour prevailed, he could tap a GOP replacement as soon as he took office in 2004. State Republicans say Barbour would appoint Pickering, a former Lott aide who has close family ties to Barbour.

Under Mississippi law, Lott's replacement would face a special election in November 2004 for the remaining two years in his term. Alternatively, some Republicans say that if the controversy continues to mushroom, Lott would best serve the party by stepping down from the Senate in the next two weeks. If that happens, state law requires a special election within 90 days. Possible Democratic candidates include Attorney General Mike Moore, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and former Gov. William Winter.

When Republicans first mentioned the idea of removing Lott from his leadership post last week, Lott's allies threatened that he would leave Congress entirely, jeopardizing the party's Senate majority. But GOP sources said this week that Lott would have no choice but to stay in the Senate until Republicans find a like-minded replacement.

As the son of a shipyard worker and a teacher, Lott, 61, has a lean financial portfolio and was expected to leave the Senate after his third term expires in 2006 to make his fortune in the private sector. But a bitter departure from Congress-particularly one that threatens the party's Senate majority-could dash those plans.

"Can you imagine how Lott would be treated by the 13 Republican committee chairmen who lost their gavels as a result [of his departure]?" said one GOP lobbyist.

Allies have made it clear that Lott has no intention of stepping down from his leadership position. "Don't count Lott out," said one ally. "If anybody could pull it off, it would be Trent."

Still, some Republicans have begun searching for ways to find a soft landing for Lott if he is forced out. Some are considering giving Lott a committee chairmanship. But it is not clear what committee post he could take.