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Sen. Conrad Burns Wants 'Conference' on Lott's Future

Aired December 16, 2002 - 12:45   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our Congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl is covering the Trent Lott story, and he's got some new information -- Jon.
JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, another development, another interesting development here, Wolf, and this comes from Senator Conrad Burns, a conservative senator from the state of Montana, and he has put out a statement now joining people like Chuck Hagel and Don Nickles in calling for a Republican conference to have a new vote on whether or not Trent Lott should maintain -- still continue on as the Republican leader, the majority leader here in the United States Senate. I'd like to read you the statement, because it is a very significant one, Wolf.

He says, "It is not fair for us to leave senator Lott's future as Senate majority leader uncertain, nor is it helpful for the party to let the issue go unresolved. There needs to be some closure very soon, so it is important that we hold a conference and hear each other's thoughts."

And listen to this, Wolf, "He says Senator Lott's comments were inappropriate and they do not reflect the party of compassionate conservatism. But I want to hear from my colleagues before I make any decision about who should lead the party and the Senate."

That coming from Conrad Burns, normally not somebody that rushes to the television cameras to get attention for himself, somebody that works on issues in his area and for his constituents, not one of the real camera hogs here. He's come out now, very influential because he represents a different part of the party than the people we have heard from so far, and he believes there needs to be a vote.

Wolf, I have heard there are preparations to bring the Republican Party back here, the Republicans in the Senate back a couple of days early. Of course, the Senate reconvenes on January 7th, and they are supposed to have a meeting on January 8th, a retreat previously scheduled. Now I hear there are discussions about bringing them back at least one day early on January 6th.

Of course, there are others who would like to see this move even earlier than that, would like to see this resolved before the holiday season.

But this is another voice, another voice saying we need to have, the Republicans need to have a vote to decide whether or not Trent Lott continues on as their leader -- Wolf. BLITZER: And if there is a vote, assuming that Trent Lott wants to fight this as opposed to throwing in the towel and just quitting as the majority leader, he would need 26 votes to make sure he stays on as the majority leader, the 51 Republicans in the Republican caucus. Is anyone at this point, John, doing the head counting?

KARL: Wolf, behind the scenes, people are starting to do that, but it's way too early for even the people that are most skilled in counting votes up here to do that, because the vast majority of the Republican conference here in the United States Senate of those 51 Republican this senators are holding their cards close to their chest, and are not saying anything about this, and that includes people in the moderate and conservative wings of the party. Most of them have simply said nothing.

And I can tell you that Trent Lott himself, I've been told by numerous senators, has been working the phones quite aggressively himself. By last night, he has been in touch with I'm told at least 40 of the 51 senators, talking with them, expressing his desire to continue on as majority leader and trying to clarify his own situation.

So clearly, there is some prepositioning going on here, but even the person who has been out in front on this, Don Nickles, the person who first said there needs to be a vote on Trent Lott and whether or not he continues, his people, people very close to him, and Nickles himself to his colleagues, has been making the point that he is not saying that necessarily he needs to be that person, but the Republicans need to get together and decide whether or not they need a new leader, and in his view, Trent Lott is significantly damaged, and there does need to be at least a very serious consideration of whether or not he needs to step down as the leader of this party in the Senate.

BLITZER: All right, Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill. He will continue to watch and listen and see what's going on up there and come back when he gets some more news.

Jon, thanks very much.


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