WASHINGTON – Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is stepping down as Senate Republican leader, but will remain in the upper house to maintain the GOP majority, he announced today.

Sen. Trent Lott

Lott has been under fire from Republicans and Democrats for two weeks following his endorsement of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign at the South Carolina senator’s 100th birthday party.

With Lott’s departure, the only declared candidate for his post so far has been Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a close ally of President Bush. Frist, who made his candidacy known last night, 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.

“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 January 6, 2003,” Lott said in a 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 said, indicated that he would not resign his seat from the upper house of Congress.

Early today, Frist was picking up support in what he had described as his “likely” bid to challenge Lott for the job of Senate majority leader in the next term of Congress.

“I have concluded that the current controversy has completely overshadowed our efforts to expand the American dream to all Americans,” Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., said in a statement today, announcing his support for Frist.

Before Lott’s decision, only one GOP senator – Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island – had said publicly that Lott should step down.

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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