Washington — Embattled Republican leader Trent Lott sustained a double-barreled setback Wednesday as Sen. Lincoln Chafee broke ranks to call for a change in party leadership and Secretary of State Colin Powell forcefully criticized Lott's controversial remarks on race.
"I believe it's time to make a change," Chafee, a liberal Republican senator, told reporters in his home state of Rhode Island. "I think the process is happening," he said, and encouraged the White House to step in to help ease Lott from power.
Powell, the highest-ranking black in the Bush administration, made his first comments on a controversy that flared this month when Lott spoke favorably of Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign of a half-century ago. "I was disappointed in the senator's statement. I deplored the sentiments behind the statement," he said.
"There was nothing about the 1948 election or the Dixiecrat agenda that should have been acceptable in any way to any American at that time or any American now."
Lott maintained a defiant pose, insisting he would fight for his job at a Jan. 6 meeting of GOP rank and file senators, and swiping at suggestions from anonymous officials with ties to the White House that he step down.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Lott talked by telephone this morning. "Andy said to him that he thought a lot of what he was reading was unfair to Lott because the White House is not playing a role and is not getting involved in the leadership race. Andy said to him the president does not think you should resign," Fleischer said.
Lott, 61, triggered an uproar earlier this month at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond. He said voters of his state were proud to have supported the South Carolinian when he ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, and added, "If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
The Mississippi Republican, leader of the Senate GOP since 1996, has since apologized numerous times, most recently in an appearance Tuesday night on Black Entertainment Television.