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Stepping Aside: Sen. Trent Lott

December 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: When the end came, it came quickly. Last night, Tennessee Senator Bill Frist issued a statement saying he’d been approached by some Senate Republicans about replacing the embattled Trent Lott as leader. Frist said that if a majority of Republicans wanted him to, he would “likely step forward for that role.” Within the hour, Virginia Senator John Warner told reporters he would support Frist, and a cascade of other endorsements followed, including from some considered to be Lott loyalists.

Shortly before 11:00 this morning, Lott announced he would step down. We get more on all this from two Senators instrumental in bringing about the change: Senator Warner and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Supporters of Senator Lott were not available this evening.

Good evening to you both. Senator Warner, why last night did you publicly come out to support Senator Frist when Senator Lott was still fighting for his job?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: First, let’s commend Senator Lott for his courage in making a correct decision, and returning to the Senate where I’m certain he can be a good, constructive, effective Senator for his state and to work with us. I know that my good friend here and colleague, we’ll work with him to see that he, his skills are put to good use in the institution that he has served so many years. Yesterday afternoon I was in the office with Bill Frist. I had visited with him very quietly throughout the week. I was sort of his blackboard. He would scratch notes and chalk and erase it and we’d think things through. But once we learned that Senator Nickles was going to withdraw, that would have left…

MARGARET WARNER: Challenging Senator Lott.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That’s correct. That would have left no one in the field and he would have had the open field to run in.

MARGARET WARNER: But why was it so important to you?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Let me finish. We felt that the caucus, the Republican Conference, as we call it, was entitled to choice, and so Bill made the decision to step up and indicate that he would run. We struck the word likely from the release at the end, but somehow it got out in the beginning. There is no likely. He went in it with full force, and did it in a very respectful way.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hagel, you last Sunday were one of the first to at least suggest there should be some sort of reassessment by the caucus of your election of Lott as leader just two or three weeks ago. Why did you do that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, it was Senator Warner who stepped forward first on Sunday, and I think I was the next Senator who came in behind Senator Warner an hour or two later and said I thought in the interest of our party, our country, and quite honestly in the interest of Senator Lott, that this was a serious matter and needed to be resolved. We needed to deal with this now. And it was obvious that there were really only two courses for our Republican Conference to decide upon. Course A was a reconfirmation of our confidence in Senator Lott’s leadership, or we were going to elect a new leader. And I didn’t think it was a responsible thing for any of us to defer that or let that drift day after day.

This was not good for Senator Lott, for our party, for the country or the president’s agenda. I spoke with Senator Frist yesterday afternoon at some length about what exactly Senator Warner said, and I thought as I told Senator Frist, that just as Senator Warner said it was important that our Conference have the ability to make a decision here and not to be faced with some kind of a parliamentary situation where it was just one option. So that’s why I said what I said and did what I did.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, Senator Warner about what your colleague from Virginia, fellow Virginia Senator George Allen said today. He said that he came to realize just going out and talking to his constituents what damage Senator Lott’s comments had done to the party’s efforts to reach out to minorities. And also he said right now the focus is on Senator Lott, but we realized the focus was going to be on us and that each one of us as Republican senators, had to decide were we ready to vote to reaffirm Senator Lott and that we would be seen as having condoned his remarks. Does that sound familiar?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I suspect that could have been inferred. I say to my colleague, George Allen, who has shown good leadership throughout this, we’ve worked together, we’re proud of our southern heritage. But our state went through a tragic period, Virginia, when it had the massive resistance program relating to the integration in our schools. I think all southern Senators, certainly myself, we’ve tried a little extra hard to put forward our efforts to stamp out bias and prejudice and to support legislation which will, in effect, try and stamp it out.

So I look forward to working with our colleagues and Republican Party. I anticipate we’ll take strong initiatives, step out and show the leadership that we’ve had in the past. Always remember, history shows, had it not been for Republicans, we would not have achieved the volume of very important civil rights legislation now on the books because early on, southern Democrats fought it very hard.

MARGARET WARNER: But as many critics on the left point out, Senator Hagel, many of the southern Democrats became Republicans and what they say, and I’m thinking of former President Bill Clinton and others, is, not the Senate, but the Republicans have gained a majority, as he said, by playing the so-called southern strategy and by using sort of race-based issues and standing up for “states’ rights” and against federal initiatives like affirmative action and civil rights. What do you say to that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment or an accurate framing of the issue. The so-called southern strategy that then-President Nixon developed was not a strategy that was based on a racist dynamic. It was a more conservative dynamic of policy overall of governance; hence when Nixon ran in ’68, he essentially said the Democrats were moving so far left. It didn’t have anything to do with racism. It was the issue of governance. In 1972, the Democrats came up with George McGovern- as their candidate. That was the basic philosophy.

MARGARET WARNER: You would agree when they said speaking of Republicans, what they are really upset about is that Lott made public their strategy. Trent Lott said that’s the Republican policy.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I’m not sure what you mean by that’s the Republican policy.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I agree with that. That’s not Republican policy.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: No, that isn’t.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That’s ridiculous.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: As I just said, that was not the issue at all nor was it the base of the philosophical difference.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Margaret, I wouldn’t be in this seat today, just fortunately been elected for the fifth time to represent Virginia had not proportionately speaking a significant number of people of color stepped up and supported me. And I’ve worked throughout my career in the Senate to fairly represent all of the seven million plus in our state.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this. Senator Daschle, the incoming now-Minority Leader said that whoever is the new leader of the Republicans will have to do more than disavow Lott’s policies — there is going to have to be a change in Republican policies. Do you think Senate Republicans are going to feel pressure to trim their views on whether it’s judgeships, affirmative action issues as they come up in the next session?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: This tragic chapter of history will have to be revisited and studied and, indeed, I think our party will take pride in showing leadership on initiatives that will clearly show that in our hearts and in our minds, there is no prejudice. I’m proud of the colleagues that we serve with on both sides of the islands, and I’m proud of the manner in which, from Senator Lott to Senator Frist, passing the mantle, we’ve stood up and met the challenge in this crisis as we’re sitting here, I think it is all over now. It will be settled in a telephone conference call. I suggested this to some of our colleagues earlier today. It has been picked up. We’ll move forward. Bill Frist will be elected on Monday, I think, by acclamation. And it’s behind us. But as you point out, we must learn from it and to make certain it’s never repeated again.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I would just add to that. Both sides here, both Democrats and Republicans, need to understand they have a responsibility here not to be reckless with this kind of talk because this could open up a very painful chapter. And for what reason are we doing this? We’re addressing issues and we will continue to address issues. But we have a responsibility here to be very careful with all of this.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you finally about the White House role and the role of President Bush both publicly in terms of his statement and behind the scenes. What do you think was the White House role in this?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I don’t think there was any White House role in it. I think the president said what he said. I think if you look at just the political dynamic of this, the White House surely understood, understands, that this is a matter, as I said a couple minutes ago, between the 51 Republican Senators. They’re smart enough — they’re astute enough to know that the last thing they need to do is get in the middle of that. I don’t think they had any role in this.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: We’re separate but equal bodies of government, the Congress and the White House. And this afternoon I visited with our good friend Bill Frist in his office as I’ve done just about every day this week. I said Bill, this question is going to come up. And Bill turned to me and he said, John, I have not talked with anyone in the White House about this leadership race. I haven’t even called the White House in three weeks. I haven’t even held a press conference on this issue. No, we’re fortunate we have a man now who will lead. And you know, the buck stops on the desk of all 51 Republican Senators, and we’ve accepted that challenge, and we’ve met it and dealt with it fairly and objectively.

MARGARET WARNER: I think you meant it would come up because it has been widely reported that Frist is very close to Karl Rove and they worked together before the election.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, look how brilliantly he brought in the freshman class, which enabled us to gain a majority. The president was heavily involved in that race. Karl Rove was his principal political adviser. Of course they worked hand in hand.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you expect Bill Frist as Majority Leader to be any closer to the White House, when dealing among the different groups among your caucus, than say Trent Lott was?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think the relationship between the relationship between the president and Senator Frist and Karl Rove and Senator Frist is closer. But that also can work to our advantage. But if the issue is whether Bill Frist will sacrifice the integrity of the institution of the United States Senate to the wishes of president bush, the answer is clearly and emphatically no.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: And I agree with my colleague.

MARGARET WARNER: We’ll leave it there. Thank you, Senators both.