And while Reid has opted to focus on highlighting support from black elected and civil leaders, Republicans and Democrats noted that has been a dramatic difference between the two leaders. Inside the [Democratic] caucus, theres not one member yet to pull their finger out of the dam. There was with Lott. Don Nickles was out there. [Former Sen.] George Allen [R-Va.] was out there. Those guys were stirring the pot, a former Senate Republican aide said.
Reid has also enjoyed strong support from Obama, who issued a statement Saturday accepting Reids apology and dismissing claims that the Majority Leader is racist.
In contrast, Lotts uneasy relationship with the White House also was cause for increasing concern. The Bush administration put a premium on loyalty and wanted members of President George W. Bushs trusted circle of advisers and friends in key positions of the government. But by its nature as an elected body, the White House couldnt simply install leaders in either chamber and Lott, who had a reputation for compromise, did not fit the mold of a Bush guy.
The White House never trusted him, a former Lott aide noted.
At the same time, the partys increasingly conservative base was already unhappy with Lott, sources said, thanks to his less-than-enthusiastic approach to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
That, combined with Lotts penchant for bipartisan deal-making caused himself to be a villain of the right, particularly after the Clinton impeachment trial, a Lott source said.
But despite those problems, initially, most members of the GOP sought to distance themselves from the comments while remaining supportive of Lotts leadership, issuing statements chastising him for making insensitive remarks but arguing that because he had apologized he should be forgiven. Most of the GOP Conferences leaders also backed Lott. Lawmakers took issue with Lotts remarks, but not with Lott. They were very supportive of him, a Lott source said.
But the controversy remained in the headlines, forcing Lott to make a series of public apologies, including a Dec. 12 appearance on Black Entertainment Television during which Lott said, My choice of words were totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that.
But by then, the crisis had taken its toll on Lott. Lott sources noted that Nickles and Allen were becoming openly critical of Lott, and during conference calls between the Members, questioned whether Lott should remain the Conferences leader.
At the same time, the White House quickly began moving to distance itself from Lott. The day after his BET appearance, Bush condemned Lotts comments during a speech, saying they do not reflect the spirit of our country. One Republican who worked in the Senate at the time of the controversy said Bushs comments were key in pushing the Conference to oust Lott. They saw this as an opportunity to put someone in there who they trusted, who they could work with, the source said.
By Dec. 20, Nickles was openly calling for new leadership elections. With then-up-and-coming Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) quickly securing the support of 51 Republicans, Lott stepped down.