GWEN IFILL: Senator Trent Lott's appearance last night on Black Entertainment Television was his fifth apology for racially charged comments he made a dozen days ago, and his latest effort to save his political career.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: The important thing is to recognize the hurt that I caused, and ask for forgiveness.
GWEN IFILL: The Republican leader is still reeling from a mounting storm of criticism from constituents, colleagues, and even the White House, over approving comments he made about retiring Senator Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for President on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. Lott used last night's interview to renounce several policy positions he has taken over the years-- most notably on affirmative action. He spoke with BET interviewer Ed Gordon.
ED GORDON: Yet your votes in the past have not suggested that you are for affirmative action.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I am for affirmative action, and I practice it. I have had African Americans on my staff, and other minorities, but particularly African Americans, since the mid-1970s. I have had a particular program...
ED GORDON: But to have one on one's staff... you understand the difference, though: To have a black on your staff and to push legislation that would help African Americans, minorities across the board, are completely different.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: You know, again, you can get into arguments about timetables and quotas. Here's what I think, though. I think you've got to have an aggressive effort in America to make everybody have a chance.
GWEN IFILL: In 1997, Lott led Senate Republicans in blocking Bill Lan Lee's nomination to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Senators cited lee's support for affirmative action. The following year, Lott voted to eliminate a federal affirmative action program that helped minority-owned construction firms. Lott was also asked about his voting record on other issues considered important to African Americans.
ED GORDON: You voted against the King holiday, you voted against funding the King Commission after the holiday was put forth. You voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1990. You voted against the Voting Rights Act-- the extension of it in 1992. There are a myriad of opportunities to say to the black community, "you know what? I'm for you."
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, let me respond to that, if I could. There are a number of things that I've done in recent years that I think would show that I have been changing.
ED GORDON: Let's talk about the King Holiday.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I want to talk about the King Holiday. We'll get back to that. I'm not sure we in America, certainly not white America and the people in the South, fully understood who this man was; the impact he was having on the fabric of this country.
ED GORDON: But you certainly understood it by the time that vote came up, Senator.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, but...
ED GORDON: You knew who Dr. King was at that point.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I did, but I've learned a lot more since then. I want to make this point very clearly. I have a high appreciation for him being a man of peace, a man that was for nonviolence, a man that did change this country. I've made a mistake. And I would vote now for a Martin Luther King Holiday.
GWEN IFILL: Lott's position has changed. In 1984, he told southern partisan magazine: "Look at the cost involved in the Martin Luther King holiday and the fact that we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving. I just think it was basically wrong." Lott said he also has more expansive views now on voting rights.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: And one of the things that I'm doing to try to atone for that is supporting election reform, so that everybody has a chance to vote and have their votes actually count. And that's why I think we need to have fully funded election reform legislation.
GWEN IFILL: Lott, however, appears to be losing support from members of his own caucus. Today, Senator Susan Collins of Maine called Lott's comments "extremely damaging."
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I do think his apology is a sincere one, but the question is whether he can continue to be an effective leader in the United States Senate for the Republicans.
GWEN IFILL: Presidential Spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush stands by his tough criticism of Lott. But Senate Republicans, he said, will have to decide for themselves whether Lott should continue as their leader.
ARI FLEISCHER: The message that the White House is sending is: No comment means no comment, and we're not commenting on it.
GWEN IFILL: Lott said last night he does not plan to step down.
ED GORDON: If the President calls and asks that you step aside for the party's sake, would you?
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I think it would be a mistake. I don't believe he would do that.
ED GORDON: He says he won't.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: And I think that it's more important for me to stay in the job I've been elected to and show that I can make a difference. I'm asking people to forgive my mistake and give me a chance.
GWEN IFILL: Senate Republicans meet January 6.