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Frist Likely to Succeed Lott as Senate Republican Leader - 2002-12-21

U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi has announced he is stepping down as Senate Republican leader, two weeks after he sparked a political firestorm with racially-divisive comments. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee is expected to succeed him as party leader.

Bowing to pressure from fellow Republicans, Mr. Lott announced his resignation as party leader in a written statement, saying he is doing so in the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of the country.

Mr. Lott has been under fire for comments made earlier this month at a ceremony marking the 100th birthday for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond. Mr. Lott said the nation would have been better off if it had elected then-segregationist presidential candidate Thurmond in 1948.

Senator Frist announced his interest in the party leadership post on Thursday. He already has won the support of more than half the 51 Republicans in the Senate, including Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

"I believe it is clear, obvious and therefore we should select Bill Frist by acclamation," he said. "I do not think there is any question he is going to be our new leader."

Mr. Frist is a heart surgeon who has served eight years in the Senate and has been a close ally of the Bush White House. He is expected to be formally chosen as Mr. Lott's successor in a telephone conference call with Republican Senators on Monday.

Republicans, concerned the controversy over Senator Lott would distract from their agenda, are eager to put the matter behind them.

"My concern that if we did not make a change in leadership and find someone as leader who accurately reflects our beliefs and principles and ideas, that we would be mired in inaction rather than moving forward as we need to do in January," said Senator George Allen of Virginia.

While resigning his leadership post, Mr. Lott will continue to serve in the Senate.