Washington Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott apologized Friday for reopening old racial wounds with remarks on segregation, and asked "forbearance and forgiveness" as he struggled to quell a controversy that threatened his hold on power.
Apologetic and defiant by turns, the Mississippi Republican rejected Democratic calls for resignation from his leadership post. "I'm not about to resign for an accusation for something I'm not," he said, adding that none of his Senate GOP colleagues had suggested he step down.
"Let me be clear: Segregation and racism are immoral," Lott said at a hotel in Pascagoula, Miss. He added, "I lived through the troubled times in the South, and along with the South, I have learned from the mistakes of our past."
The GOP leader also spoke approvingly of remarks that President Bush made on the subject Thursday. "Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," Bush said at the time.
Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar last week when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either," Lott added in remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday.
Within an hour of the news conference, several GOP senators issued statements of support for their embattled leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming GOP whip, said, "I believe the American people will accept his apology and want us now to move forward together."
But other lawmakers, outgoing GOP whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma among them, kept their own counsel. And several senior Republicans, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lott's survival as leader was not a foregone conclusion.
Several GOP sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lott's office organized a conference call of Republican senators following his appearance in an attempt to shore up support. The sources added that while no participants suggested Lott step aside, concern was expressed about the long-term impact of the race-based controversy on the GOP legislative agenda, on Bush and on the election prospects of Senate Republicans in 2004.
In the days since, Democrats have heaped criticism on Lott.