Bowing to pressure from his fellow senators and the Bush White House, Sen. Trent Lott resigned his position as Senate majority leader on Friday after his colleagues openly began lining up behind Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist.
"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."
Lott's methodical resignation - a terse statement released from the office of Senate Republican leader here - culminated a weeks-long controversy over Lott's racially insensitive comments.
His decision amounted to a 180-degree about-face.
Earlier this week, Lott had vowed to stay and fight, saying that "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's fall followed a tribute that Lott gave earlier this month at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
The Mississippian at the time hailed the venerable South Carolinian and said he thought the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had won his campaign for the presidency in 1948. Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat at the time, on a mostly segregationist platform.
One Republican official said that Lott's office had informed White House officials beforehand of his decision. Despite speculation that Lott would demand a committee chairmanship or some other consolation prize, this official said Lott was stepping down with no strings attached.
Lott, 61, has been the Senate GOP leader since 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., left the Senate to devote full time to his unsuccessful presidential bid.
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."
The remarks drew immediate criticism from black leaders and Democrats. They were quickly joined by conservatives worried that the comments would create a distracting firestorm that would harm the White House's and GOP's efforts to advance their legislative agenda.
While Lott initially attempted to stomp out the controversy with a terse press release and telephone interviews on radio and television, it began to spin out of control after President Bush issued a forceful denunciation of his remarks last week.
With Lott's departure, the only declared candidate for his post so far has been Sen. Bill Frist, a close ally of President Bush. Frist, who made his candidacy known Thursday evening, has so far garnered public support from at least seven senators.
But Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were considered possible rivals for the job.
The 51 GOP senators who will serve in the next Congress plan to meet Jan. 6 to decide who their next leader will be.
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Timeline of Events in Lott’s Life
1941: Chester Trent Lott is born in Grenada County, Miss. His father is a sharecropper and his mother is a teacher. When Lott is in 7th grade, the family moves to the coastal town of Pascagoula, where his father gets a job in the shipyards.
1959: Lott enters the University of Mississippi and pledges Sigma Nu fraternity. He becomes president of his fraternity, president of the inter-fraternity council and head cheerleader. In later interviews, Lott says that he favored racial segregation during this time.
1962: James Meredith, the first black student to attend the school, arrives on campus escorted by marshals. Lott, as a campus leader, works to keep fraternity members out of the unrest surrounding integration of the school.
1963: Lott graduates with a degree in public administration and enrolls in the University of Mississippi's law school.
1967: Lott graduates from law school. His marriage to Patricia Thompson of Pascagoula and the birth of his first child, Chester, earn him a hardship exemption that keeps him from being drafted into the Vietnam War. He gets a job in a Pascagoula law firm.
1968: Lott and his family move to Washington, D.C., where Lott works as an aide to Rep. William Colmer, D-Miss.
1972: Lott switches parties, upset at what he sees as a Democratic penchant for expanding government, and runs for Colmer's seat as a Republican when Colmer retires. Lott wins.
1978: Lott leads an effort to get the U.S. citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis restored. President Carter signs the bill into law. Lott is later rewarded for his efforts by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which gives him the Jefferson Davis Medal.
1980: Appearing at a Nov. 2 rally in Jackson, Miss., with Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, Lott tells the crowd "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."
1981: Lott becomes minority whip, a leadership position he retains until he leaves the House. The same year, he is one of 24 House members to vote against legislation extending the Voting Rights Act, which would impose penalties for Southern states that didn't assure open polls to black voters. Also that year, when the IRS moves to deny South Carolina's Bob Jones University tax-exempt status because it bans interracial dating, Lott defends the school's policy on First Amendment grounds, saying the ban is for religious reasons.
1983: Lott is one of 90 lawmakers to vote against establishing a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. In an interview, Lott decries the cost of another federal holiday and says that there are other people "more deserving" than King.
1984: While serving on the Republican Party platform committee in 1984, Lott attends a meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Biloxi, Miss., in which he is quoted as saying "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform."
1988: Lott wins the Senate seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. John Stennis.
1992: Lott gives a keynote address to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which advocates the preservation of the white race. He is quoted as saying "the people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." After an outcry over his connection to the group erupts in 1999, Lott says he didn't know about the group's view on white supremacy, condemns it and cuts his ties.
1994: Lott is elected Senate majority whip, the first person to be elected whip in both houses.
1996: Lott is elected Senate majority leader after Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., steps down to run for president. He is the first Mississippian to hold the office. The same year, Lott introduces legislation condemning a rash of arson attacks on black churches.
1997: Lott co-sponsors legislation commemorating June 10, the day slavery was abolished, and supports a resolution designating April 30, 1997, as "National Erase the Hate and Eliminate Racism Day."
2000: Lott supports a trade bill with African and Caribbean nations, works with President Clinton to create the Delta Regional Authority to help impoverished areas in the Mississippi Delta and lures a Nissan auto plant to a largely black part of Mississippi.
2001: Lott co-sponsors a bill to establish a National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian Institution.
2002: Lott supports a resolution taking steps to recognize slave laborers who helped build the U.S. Capitol.
Dec. 5, 2002: At a 100th birthday celebration for Thurmond, Lott says Mississippians were proud to vote for Thurmond for president in 1948, adding, "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
Source: The Associated Press contributed to this report.