Washington Breaking ranks, a veteran Senate Republican called Sunday for new leadership elections, saying Sen. Trent Lott has been so weakened by a race-based controversy that "his ability to enact our agenda" is in doubt.
"There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership. And I hope we have an opportunity to choose," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing GOP whip who nearly challenged Lott for leader in this fall.
Republican leader Lott, R-Miss., had no immediate reaction to the comments, which instantly added a new dimension to his struggle to survive the fallout from remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that touched on racial segregation.
By day's end, there was evidence of growing internal struggle among Senate Republicans.
Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the rank and file should meet to address the controversy, although neither man explicitly called for new elections.
At the same time, Lott's allies sought to undercut Nickles, circulating material designed to show the two men had voted alike on key civil rights issues and that the Oklahoman had long thirsted for the top leadership post. The material also included a fraternity magazine article quoting Nickles as speaking favorably about Thurmond - but about the fact that he had children late in life, not his segregationist past.
While Nickles has served with Lott in the GOP leadership for several years, they have been rivals as well as colleagues. Nickles' statement appeared timed to blunt a Sunday broadcast offensive by Lott's allies seeking to lay the controversy to rest.
"I have a lot of confidence in him as the leader and as a senator. And I think we should not lynch him, we should give him an opportunity," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar this month when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket.