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Senior Senate Republican Suggests Change in Party Leadership - 2002-12-15

Pressure is building on U.S. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott following his controversial comments on the sensitive issue of race. For the first time, a fellow Republican Senator is suggesting party members may be ready for a leadership change.

For six years, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma was the number two Republican in the Senate working closely with Trent Lott.

Now, he has become the first Republican senator to break ranks and call for a new election for party leader.

In a statement released Sunday, Mr. Nickles said he is concerned Senator Lott has been weakened to the point that his ability to push the Republican agenda may be in jeopardy.

The controversy surrounds Mr. Lott's remarks at a 100th birthday party for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. He said the nation would have been much better off if Mr. Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, when he ran for the office on a segregationist platform.

Senator Lott, who comes from the southern state of Mississippi, has said since then that he was merely trying to honor an elderly colleague, and did not intend to make a statement about race.

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was asked about the matter on ABC's This Week program. He noted Trent Lott has apologized several times and should be permitted to finish his term as Republican leader in the Senate.

"He made a terrible mistake. He knows that. He has apologized, at last count, on four different occasions. And it seems to me that we should accept his apology and move on," said Senator McConnell.

President George W. Bush has expressed similar sentiments. But there have been statements of outrage from Democrats and civil rights groups and calls for Senator Lott to quit his leadership post.

Some of the strongest statements have come from African-Americans in the House of Representatives. Congressman John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, began his political career in the civil rights movement. He told NBC's Meet the Press that an apology is not enough.

"As a nation, as a people, we are prepared to forgive. But it is not enough to issue an apology. There is a history here, a pattern on the part of Senator Lott and he must do much more than issue an apology," he said.

Appearing on the same program, retiring Congressman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only African-American Republican in the legislature, said he accepts the senator's apology, but believes others will keep the controversy alive for political reasons.

"We are in a political arena. We are in a poisoned arena. And we are in an arena that likes to attack and divide. We don't do very well at uniting and healing. So I think the next two weeks are going to be very critical for the senator and his team," Mr. Watts said.

Congressman Watts said he believes Senator Lott has committed "a sin of the head and not the heart." He said he has spoken with Mr. Lott several times about the controversy and has urged him to move beyond symbolism, and move on to substance to show his commitment to racial equality.