WASHINGTON -- Anxious to end a political uproar, Senate Republicans set a Jan. 6 meeting on Monday to settle the fate of Sen. Trent Lott, their longtime leader weakened by a backlash over racially insensitive remarks.
"There needs to be some closure soon," said Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who joined a growing list of Republicans voicing concern about the impact of the furor on the party.
The call to a closed-door meeting came as Lott, R-Miss., appeared on Black Entertainment Television as part of a campaign to save his job, and offered the latest on a string of apologies for recent remarks on segregation.
"I'm looking for this not only to be an opportunity for redemption but to do something about it." he said, adding he could use his post to "move an agenda that would hopefully be helpful to African Americans and minorities of all kinds and all Americans."
In a BET interview, he said he supports Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a federal holiday, even though he voted against legislation on it in 1983. "I'm for affirmative action and I've practiced it," he added, citing the presence of blacks on his staff since the 1970s.
And he rejected allegations that he is a racist. "To be a racist, you have to feel superior," he told his questioner, Ed Gordon. "I don't feel superior to you at all."
Lott got a boost from an unlikely source during the day, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who rose to prominence in the struggle for civl rights. "Just like so many leaders of the old South, Trent Lott has the potential to become a better person and a better political leader," he said after a telephone conversation.
There were fresh signs of political weakness in Lott's position, though, as his original comments were attacked anew from the White House podium and the Republican National Committee maintained its silence about the controversy.
The announced meeting sets the stage for a remarkable closed-door session for which there are few, if any precedents. And the senator who emerges from the meeting as the GOP leader -- Lott or another -- will swiftly ascend to the position of majority leader, charged with pushing President Bush's agenda through the GOP-controlled Senate.
Under Republican rules, any senator may propose new elections once the doors are closed, although no balloting would proceed unless a majority of Republicans wanted to go ahead.
Lott's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, said the senator had favored having the meeting called -- even though his allies opposed it on the weekend television interviews. Bonjean also said Lott would go into the meeting determined to save his job.
Still, there was no shortage of speculation about potential successors.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing whip, topped the list, although his spokesman said he didn't know what his boss's plans were. Nickles, Lott's longtime rival within the GOP leadership, was the first Republican to break ranks over the weekend and call for new leadership elections.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has also gained prominence in recent months, following a successful stint as chairman of the senatorial campaign committee. Several Republicans have said for months that Frist's political goal was capturing the White House in 2008. "My Republican colleagues and I are actively engaged in deciding what is in the best interest of the Senate as an institution and the country," Frist said in a statement. "I am confident a consensus will emerge, but no decisions have been made yet."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been a leading Lott defender in his role as incoming GOP whip. He, alone among Senate Republicans, issued a statement of backing for the embattled leader during the day. "I maintain my support for Sen. Lott, and hope this issue is resolved quickly so we can move forward together to advance the president's agenda," it said.
The Jan. 6 date left Republicans three weeks to consider their choices. Some Republican aides speculated about an effort to coax Lott from his leadership post in the interim, perhaps by offering the prospect of a committee chairmanship.
That would also address a separate concern of some Republicans, the fear that Lott might resign his seat if he lost his leadership post, and allow his state's Democratic governonor to name a replacement. A Democratic replacement would leave the Senate at a 50-50 tie, and complicate Republican efforts to advance their agenda.
Rep. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the GOP conference, issued a terse one-sentence statement announcing the meeting, saying the decision had been made "with a number of members, leadership, Sen. Lott and Sen. Nickles."
Santorum reacted coolly to the idea in a Sunday interview on NBC, but once Nickles proposed new elections, a growing number of senators endorsed a meeting, and the momentum was too strong to resist.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer called Lott's remarks about the 1948 presidential campaign "offensive and repugnant." At the same time, he said, "The president does not think he (Lott) needs to resign."
Lott's predicament stemmed from remarks he made earlier this month at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott said Mississippians were proud to have supported Thurmond for president when he ran in 1948 as a segregationist. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either," he said.
Lott has apologized repeatedly for the remarks, declaring them insensitive and worse. But the furor has persisted. And a strategy of laying the controversy to rest with an apology on Friday, a defense-by-proxy on the Sunday talk shows and the BET appearance failed to do the job.
"Sen. Lott's comments were inappropriate and do not reflect the party of 'compassionate conservatism, but I want to hear from my colleagues before I make any decision about who should lead the party and the Senate," said Burns.