WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (UPI) -- Senate Republicans will meet Jan. 6 to discuss whether their embattled leader, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, should continue in light of the prolonged furor over comments he made at outgoing Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Capitol Hill.
Lott -- who has led Senate Republicans since 1996 -- likely will face a challenge from several candidates at the meeting, according to GOP insiders.
But several top GOP strategists say that allowing the controversy to continue for another several weeks will damage the party, and the hope remains that he will step aside as soon as possible.
The criticism of Lott stems from a comment he made Dec. 5 that seemed to endorse Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, where he ran as a Dixiecrat candidate opposing desegregation. Lott said that the nation would have been better today had Thurmond won.
The ensuing criticism of Lott -- which started from African-American groups and came to a head with a stern public rebuke from President Bush -- has gravely damaged the political career of Lott, who was due to retake the office of Senate majority leader in January.
After the No. 2 Senate Republican -- Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma -- called on his colleagues to consider replacing Lott, other Republicans have begun to call for his ouster, forcing Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who chairs the GOP caucus, to call for a meeting.
But despite Lott's planned appearance on Black Entertainment Television Monday night, many Republican insiders say the fight is pretty much over and that Lott will have to leave the leadership post, or he will be forced out.
"He's done," said one Republican insider. "If he doesn't do anything between now and the meeting, this mess will continue to erode our standing in the public eye."
Another Republican strategist said that he thought Lott's speech Friday -- in which he apologized -- did little to help him and that the BET event was likely to fail as well.
"I can't imagine it will go well (Monday)," he said. "Lott's a politician made for radio. He's totally unable to convey any passion for the issue (of race). He comes off like he's just doing whatever it takes to keep his job. It's not enough."
But the real damage was done when Bush went before a largely black audience Friday to denounce the comments. Although he has repeatedly said he does not think Lott should resign as leader, one GOP source said the intention was to isolate Lott and protect the public perception of Republicans.
"Bush cleared the floor and dropped Lott," said a Republican lobbyist with close ties to the White House. "But he didn't hand him an anvil as he went down. By condemning the comments, he inoculated himself and isolated Lott by making race Trent's issue, not a GOP issue. The president was handing Trent a way to step aside with some dignity intact, but that hasn't happened yet, and the longer it takes, the worse it is for all of us."
Although there has been no indication from Lott's camp that a resignation from leadership is under consideration, the jockeying to replace him has already begun with three major candidates emerging.
As the Republican second-in-command, Nickles has long sought the top job and even made a brief run to replace Lott after the 2001 defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the GOP to Independent, putting the Republicans back in the minority at the time. Several Republican insiders consider him a front-runner for the top spot but say that his call for a possible replacement of Lott on Sunday might have hurt his own chances.
"Nickles has been damaged by what many in the caucus see as his opportunistic move Sunday," one prominent Republican said. "He wasn't speaking out for the benefit of the party, he was motivated by personal ambition. That could really hurt him."
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell -- a longtime Lott loyalist -- might benefit most from that perception, said another Republican insider.
"McConnell, besides being one of the toughest (politicians) in town, will draw well from the Lott loyalists," the GOP source said. "His whipping to help Lott in the past week will be seen as loyalty and could help him."
The president's clear favorite is Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, according to several sources. Bush enjoys a close relationship with Frist, and party activists like his smooth demeanor on television and consider him a non-divisive choice.
Santorum is also considered a candidate, but his relative youth and inexperience make it unlikely he would get the nod from his colleagues, although one strategist said that his good relations with minorities and labor unions might make him an attractive choice if the other candidates are badly damaged in the fight for succession.
One concern that lingers with the possible removal or resignation of Lott involves whether he would remain in the Senate. Traditionally, ousted leaders do not remain in Congress, but because Republicans only have a 51-to-49 advantage in the Senate, and Mississippi has a Democratic governor who would likely appoint a Democrat to the seat, Lott faces a tough choice.
And Republicans are uncertain how he will respond.
"Lott has never been a legislator, he's been in the leadership of the House and Senate his entire career," said one insider. "It would be humiliating to have to fire his leadership staff, move into a normal office and sit on committees. I can't imagine why he would do that. He could just go be a lobbyist and make a ton of cash."
But another view is that Lott's resignation from the Senate would alienate him from his colleagues.
"If he quits the Senate and forces Republicans into another 50-50 power sharing agreement with the Dems, what Republican would hire him?" said another Republican insider. "How does he screw his own people, and then turn around and try and make money off his relationship with them? He's got to take responsibility for his mistakes and ride this out. He'll be rewarded later."