(1st Add: Includes additional comments from Sen. Bill Frist.)
(CNSNews.com) - Most Republican senators breathed a sigh of relief Friday over Sen. Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) resignation as Senate GOP leader and began looking ahead to new leadership in the 108th Congress. Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist has emerged as the favorite to replace Lott.
Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) told Fox News Channel, "He did the right thing. I'm glad that he made the decision that he did at this point. I think it was the right thing for him and the right thing for the Republican Party."
Session refused to say whom he would support as Lott's successor. "We really have some outstanding people," he said. Besides Frist, Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were seen as possible candidates for the majority leader's job in the 108th Congress. But, by Friday, Frist had already lined up much support from his colleagues.
"People that know Bill Frist are just in awe of his capabilities and the leadership he gave to the (Republican) Senate Campaign Committee when the Republicans won back the majority this time," Sessions said. Frist's performance in helping Republican Senate candidates during the 2002 election cycle "was just phenomenal," he added.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Frist said he knew Lott's decision to resign was a difficult one, "He has always put concern for his family, country and his colleagues first, and demonstrated that today."
"Trent made the selfless decision. I look forward to continuing working with him," he said.
Frist did not make any reference to his candidacy for Senate Republican Leader in his statement.
The public assault on Lott began shortly after he made comments Dec. 5 praising retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond on Thurmond's 100th birthday. Lott said the country would have been better off if it had elected Thurmond president in 1948. Thurmond, running that year as a States' Rights "Dixiecrat," focused his campaign, in part, on maintaining racial segregation.
Lott then fought off more than two weeks' worth of criticism before stepping aside. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Friday Lott "took the honorable course both for his country and his party."
"It is now incumbent upon our party to heal the pain that was inflicted over the past few weeks," he said. "Our task is to make it unambiguously clear to the American people that we are an inclusive party in the spirit of our founder, Abraham Lincoln."
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) also supported Lott's resignation. "I believe Senator Lott to be a good and honorable man. It was the best decision for his country and for the president he so deeply admires. Senator Lott will continue to play a vital role in the Congress for many years to come," said Burns in a statement on his website.
Sen.-Elect Lindsey Graham (R-S.C), successor to the retiring Thurmond, believes people were too hard on Lott over his comments at Thurmond's birthday party.
"I have always believed Senator Lott's comments were an effort to flatter Senator Thurmond at his 100th birthday party and were never meant to embrace the repudiated policies of the past," said Graham.
Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, called Lott a "consistent friend of the family during his years as both as congressman and a senator," but said Lott was "doing the right thing" by resigning as Republican leader.
"He still has an important role to play in the U.S. Senate and we look forward to working with him and the new Senate leadership in continuance of our mission to defend family, faith and freedom," said Connor.
Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way and one of Lott's most vocal critics, said Lott's resignation now turns the national spotlight on the Bush White House and other Senate leaders regarding the issue of civil rights.
"The Republican Party's civil rights problem is far broader and deeper than Trent Lott," said Neas.
"It is more important that the White House and GOP leaders make a break not only with the segregationist past but with their policies and actions that continue to undermine civil rights protections. This includes especially the efforts by President Bush to pack the federal judiciary with states' rights ideologues," said Neas.
Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, said, "Senator Lott has done the right thing by stepping aside. We hope when Republican senators convene on January 6th they will elect as their leader someone who is committed to the values and virtues upon which this country was founded."
But Rios thinks Lott's resignation should challenge both political parties to more aggressively pursue all ethnic communities for involvement in the political process.
"Both parties still have a long way to go when it comes to recruiting and fully funding candidates from all ethnic communities," Rios said.
Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who many speculate may run for the Florida Republican Senate nomination in 2004 said, "Senator Lott's resignation is the bandage needed to stop the hemorrhaging. The Party of Lincoln has healed."
"Now, the party that ended slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and today fights for school choice and economic opportunity for all can speak again with one voice," Foley said.
Lott has been the Senate GOP leader since 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole left the Senate to devote full time to his unsuccessful presidential bid. His resignation will become effective on Jan. 6.
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