GOP to 'Hash Out' Lott's Fate; Senator Says He Wasn't Referring to desegregation.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: James G. Lakely, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Senate Republicans will meet Jan. 6, the day before the 108th Congress convenes, to discuss the fate of party leader Sen. Trent Lott, who is under fire for his remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

"They're going to go into a room, lock the door and hash this all out," said an aide to a senior Senate Republican.

Mr. Lott appeared on Black Entertainment Television yesterday to explain what he meant when he said at Mr. Thurmond's party Dec. 5 that if the then-segregationist "Dixiecrat" candidate for president had won in 1948, America "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

Appearing on the show "BET Tonight With Ed Gordon," Mr. Lott said "those problems" was not a veiled reference to desegregation.

"I was talking about the problems of defense, of communism, and budget, of a government that sometimes didn't do its job," Mr. Lott said. "But again I understand that was interpreted by people the way it was, and I should have been sensitive to that."

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and one of the first to publicly call for a meeting, said yesterday the Jan. 6 meeting would give Mr. Lott "a fair opportunity to hear the views of his colleagues and to ask for support to achieve his goal."

Some Republican aides and strategists said the timing of the meeting suggests Mr. Lott will weather the crisis.

"The longer it goes the better chance he has of surviving," one Republican Capitol Hill strategist said. "This thing would be a done deal if they had an obvious replacement. The problem is it has the potential to be a bloody succession, and nobody wants to do that."

Mr. Lott's supporters were the ones pushing hardest for waiting until January, and aides said the timing gives Mr. Lott a chance to do what he does best: call senators one by one, ask for their support and remind them of all he has done for them.

Another factor pushing for a later decision, however, is that few Republican senators are in Washington, with several being abroad, and members were loath to meet without the whole conference present.

"January 6th is the earliest date that all of our Republican senators can meet because some are out of the country and unreachable," said Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican. "It is imperative for all of our 51 senators to meet and determine the course of action that will put us on track to deliver on our commitments to the American people."

Senate Republican aides said Mr. Lott could keep his job as long as "another shoe doesn't drop" and as long as the White House continues to give him at least tepid support.

In his BET interview, Mr. Lott told host Mr. Gordon that he couldn't help that he was born into a racist society in Mississippi, but said "there is change from the past."

"Who among us has not matured?" Mr. Lott asked, adding that he now "absolutely" and "across the board" supports affirmative action and favors the Martin Luther King holiday.

Mr. Lott said he had discussed creating "a task force of reconciliation" with Rep. John Lewis, a black Georgia Democrat, to make up for the "immoral leadership in my part of the country for a long time."

Asked whether he was part of that leadership, Mr. Lott answered, "Yes. I can't deny that."

Mr. Lewis, who was beaten by Southern policemen during the 1960s civil rights movement, said Mr. Lott was "sincere" in their conversation yesterday and he suggested that the Mississippi senator join him on an annual civil rights tour in March.

"I'd like to come down on his side, giving him a chance," Mr. Lewis said. "I'm not one of those calling for him to step down and give up his leadership post. We all make mistakes, we all make blunders. It's very much keeping with the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence to forgive and move on. …