How Do You Get Rid of the Senate Majority Leader?

In his latest press conference, Trent Lott once again apologized for his Dec. 5 remarks praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign. Lott has become a political liability for the GOP, but he insists he won’t resign from his post as Senate majority leader. If his apology doesn’t quell the controversy, could the GOP decide to oust him?

Yes. Thus far, though, not a single Republican senator has called for Lott’s resignation as majority leader. Republicans may not want to go further unless the White House first puts out the word that Lott’s toast.

If a majority or even a critical mass of GOP senators want Lott fired, the senator would most likely resign his post without being formally removed. That’s what Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, did when the Republican rank-and-file turned on him after the 1998 midterm elections.

If Lott refuses to step down, though, his fellow Republicans may see a need to take action. The place for them to do so would be within the Senate Republican Caucus, an informal body composed of GOP senators. Typically, the caucus elects the party’s Senate leadership—majority leader, whip, etc.—every two years, right after the November elections. (Lott himself was re-elected last month without opposition.) But it needn’t wait that long. Conceivably, the caucus could reopen the leadership matter next week and oust Lott with a simple majority vote.

If Lott were to step down or be deposed by his colleagues, the best bets to replace him are incoming Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, former Whip Don Nickles, and triumphant National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia and John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute.