Senate Republicans agreed Monday to reconsider whether Trent Lott should remain their leader, while the Mississippi senator appeared on a black-oriented cable television network to plead for forgiveness for remarks seen as racially divisive.
The decision by senior Republicans to hold an emergency conference on Jan. 6 to review Lott's status as the incoming majority leader -- and possibly strip him of the title -- provided clear evidence of how his support within the party has hemorrhaged in the last two weeks.
Suspense over the Senate leadership situation grew as GOP senators gauged quiet signals from the Bush administration, public sentiment toward Lott, the pros and cons of possible successors and their own degree of loyalty to the man who has led them since 1996.
Lott mounted a last-ditch defense of his job, using both public and private channels as a showdown looms on Capitol Hill.
Just a month ago, Lott was triumphantly reelected as party leader, unopposed after the GOP retook the Senate in the midterm elections.
But remarks Lott made on Dec. 5 at a birthday party for centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), praising Thurmond's run for president in 1948 on a platform advocating racial segregation, unleashed a controversy that threatens to cost Lott his leadership post.
Seeking to reverse the tide now running against him, Lott journeyed to Mobile, Ala., for an interview with Black Entertainment Television. In a 30-minute interview, Lott apologized yet again for his praise of Thurmond's Dixiecrat candidacy.
"The important thing is to recognize the hurt that I've caused and ask for forgiveness and find a way to make amends," Lott said in the interview with BET's Ed Gordon.
Lott's remarks represented a significant shift for a politician whose voting record and past public statements have been harshly criticized by civil rights groups.
On BET, he repeatedly pledged support for affirmative action, despite a record of voting consistently against federal initiatives in that arena. Aides later clarified that Lott opposes racial quotas, but wants to broaden opportunities for all Americans.
Lott also recanted his vote two decades ago against establishing a federal holiday for civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and said he would "listen to and talk to African American leaders" if he retains his Senate position.
He also said he would reconsider his ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group attacked as segregationist.
In one exchange with Gordon, Lott cocked his head but did not interrupt when the interviewer said he had a segregationist past. In another, Lott told Gordon, who is black: "In order to be a racist, you have to feel superior. I don't feel superior to you at all."
The White House, aware that the Senate majority leader will bear much responsibility for shepherding the administration's agenda through Congress, has distanced itself from Lott, leaving the longtime GOP leader to mount his own defense. Last week, President Bush scorned Lott's comments at Thurmond's party; the White House's chief spokesman repeated the criticism Monday.
But Lott received a boost late Monday from one of the most prominent black Democrats in Congress. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader in the civil rights movement, said he and Lott had what he called "a very productive" conversation earlier in the day. Lewis, who has been among those highly critical of Lott's remarks, said he accepted Lott's apology as sincere.
"Just like so many leaders of the old South, Trent Lott has the potential to become a better person and a better political leader," Lewis said, adding that he had invited Lott to join a bipartisan delegation to Selma, Ala., next spring to commemorate the historic 1965 march for civil rights.
But leaders of the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus issued a new statement reiterating their demand for a formal Senate censure of Lott.
Lott's appearance on BET was his latest, certainly most offbeat, effort to apologize for his remarks at the Thurmond party. But many of his GOP colleagues seem increasingly convinced that Lott's standing has been damaged beyond repair.
Not surprisingly, some Senate Democrats have called for Lott to step aside as leader.
An array of civil rights groups have also called for Lott's resignation.
More ominously for Lott, many Republican senators have remained silent on the matter -- a sign of peril for him in a capital that prizes public shows of support.
Others have issued terse statements that deplore the questions hanging over the GOP leadership.
Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana became the latest Republican to express concern about Lott's status on Monday, joining a handful of senators who had publicly called for a new meeting on the party leadership.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) agreed, saying: "Given the gravity of this most serious matter that has implications for our institution, our party and our nation, it is imperative we resolve, once and for all, the question of who should lead the Republican majority in the Senate."
Intraparty rebellion broke into the open Sunday when Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said Lott was a weakened leader who could be replaced.
Nickles, a longtime Lott rival, could contend for the majority leadership if Lott is forced out.
Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, another possible candidate and one with close ties to the White House, issued a statement that pointedly omitted any expression of support for Lott.
"My Republican colleagues and I are actively engaged in deciding what is in the best interest of the Senate as an institution and the country," Frist said. "I am confident a consensus will emerge, but no decisions have been made yet, and I have endorsed no specific proposal at this time."
Still another potential successor, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has publicly stood by Lott.
The controversy has escalated continuously since Lott noted that Mississippi backed Thurmond for president in 1948. Lott added: "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Asked on BET what "problems" he meant, Lott said, "I was talking about the problems of defense, of communism, and budget, of a government that sometimes didn't do its job. But again I understand that was interpreted by people the way it was and I should have been sensitive to that."
At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called Lott's statement at the Thurmond birthday party "offensive and repugnant." Bush had used the term "offensive" last Thursday in discussing Lott's remarks.
But Fleischer reiterated that Bush "does not think he [Lott] needs to resign."
While Bush's opinions, public and private, could weigh heavily on the outcome of the controversy, the final decision on the leadership rests with the 51 Republican senators who will serve in the 108th Congress.
The emergency meeting, announced Monday by Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Republican conference, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the vice chair, is scheduled for noon on Jan. 6 -- one day before the new Congress convenes.
Many Senate Republican aides were betting that the situation would be resolved sooner than that.
Some gave Lott an outside chance at keeping his position. But most said he appeared on his way out.
"There's an air of inevitability" about Lott's fall, said a senior Senate GOP aide.
One Republican senator suggested there was still a chance Lott could hang on. He also predicted Lott would not quit before the GOP meeting.
"That's his nature," said this senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I don't see him resigning before then. He may rally the troops and be given a vote of confidence."
Times staff writers Johanna Neuman, Janet Hook and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.