However, Lott said he would remain in the Senate, allowing Republicans to retain the political majority they won after November’s mid-term elections.
Lott’s decision comes in the wake of a firestorm of criticism over a racially insensitive remark he recently made at a birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond earlier this month.
“In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress, effective Jan. 6, 2003,” Lott said in a written statement.
“To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate,” he added.
Lott’s decision comes less than 24 hours after Senator Bill Frist (R- Tenn.), a close ally to President Bush, said he would run to replace Lott as the incoming Senate majority leader. Key Republican lawmakers began voicing their support for Frist after the announcement, further pressuring Senator Lott to step down.
Earlier this week, Lott had promised to stay and fight, saying “I was elected by the people of Mississippi to a six year term. … I have a contract and I’m going to fulfill it.”
Lott becomes the first Senate leader to step down because of controversy, Senate Historian Don Ritchie told the Associated Press.
“We’ve never had a Senate Republican leader or Senate Democratic leader step down like this before,” Ritchie said.
The 61-year-old Lott began his political career in 1968 as an administrative aide to U.S. Rep. William Colmer (D- Miss.). When Colmer retired in 1972, Lott ran successfully, as a Republican, for his House seat and he served there until 1988. He was first elected to the Senate in 1988 and was re-elected in 1994 and again in 2000.
Lott replaced former Senator Bob Dole (R- Kan.) as Senate Majority leader in 1996 but lost the position in 2001 when Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent and tipped the balance of political power in the Senate. Lott then became the Senate Minority leader and was on the cusp of retaking the majority control position before his remarks at Senator Thurmond’s party.
At the Thurmond birthday party, Lott said: “I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
Thurmond ran for the presidency in 1948 as a Dixiecrat at the time, on a largely segregationist platform.
The remarks drew sharp criticism from African American leaders and Democrats who were soon followed by conservatives concerned that the uproar over Lott’s inferred endorsement of segregationist policies of the past would detract from the GOP agenda.
Incoming House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) said that Lott’s stepping down was an “important step” but that Republicans still needed to do more to address the issue of race, according to the Associated Press.