WASHINGTON (AP) _ Breaking ranks, a veteran Senate Republican called Sunday for new leadership elections, saying Sen. Trent Lott has been so weakened by a race-based controversy that ``his ability to enact our agenda'' is in doubt.
``There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership. And I hope we have an opportunity to choose,'' said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the outgoing GOP whip who nearly challenged Lott for leader in this fall.
Republican leader Lott, R-Miss., had no immediate reaction to the comments, which instantly added a new dimension to his struggle to survive the fallout from remarks that touched on racial segregation.
At the White House, spokesman Taylor Gross said the administration does not react ``to every statement put forth by every senator.''
But by day's end, two other Republicans, Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said the rank and file should meet to address the controversy swirling around the party's leader. Neither called for new elections.
While Nickles has served with Lott in the GOP leadership for several years, they have been rivals as well as colleagues. Nickles' statement appeared timed to blunt a Sunday broadcast offensive by Lott's allies seeking to lay the controversy to rest.
``I have a lot of confidence in him as the leader and as a senator. And I think we should not lynch him, we should give him an opportunity,'' Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said on CNN's ``Late Edition.''
``I think he's going to continue to lead us, and I think he can be a very effective as our leader in the Senate,'' Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC's ``This Week.''
McConnell, elected to succeed Nickles as the No. 2 Republican leader, added that he had confidence in Lott's ability to ``move forward with the president's agenda in the new Congress.''
And Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., spoke dismissively of Nickles' remarks, noting on CNN that the Oklahoman had flirted with a challenge to Lott earlier this year.
Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar this month when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket.
``And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either,'' Lott added in remarks at 100th birthday for the retiring South Carolina senator.
Lott's most recent apology came Friday, when he strongly denounced racism and segregation at a news conference in his home state, and asked for forgiveness and forbearance.
Lott also arranged a 30-minute appearance on the Black Entertainment Television for Monday, part of an effort to demonstrate his concern about issues of importance to blacks.
But Nickles' comments seemed likely to propel the Republican leadership drama into a new phase. A closed-door meeting of the 51 GOP senators in the new Congress must be called if five make a written request.
Warner also suggested a meeting of the rank and file. ``I feel we should come together as a group and make that decision and put to rest, once and for all, this controversy,'' he said on CNN.
Hagel said in a statement that he supports bringing GOP senators together as soon as possible. Lawmakers ``must either reconfirm their confidence in Senator Trent Lott's leadership or select a new leader. ... In the interest of the Republican Party, the president's agenda and the nation this issue must be resolved quickly.''
Alternatively, GOP senators are scheduled to meet privately on Jan. 8, the day after the new Congress is sworn in, and Nickles could raise the subject of leadership elections then.
Nickles' spokesman, Brook Simmons, said he did not know whether Nickles would run for leader if there were an election.
Simmons said Nickles told the White House on Saturday night of his plans to speak out, and informed Lott early Sunday.
In his statement, Nickles said he accepted Lott's apologies, but said: ``This is bigger than any single senator now. I am concerned that Trent has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans.''
Republican officials have expressed similar concerns in recent days, and strategists have bemoaned the likely impact of Lott's comments on Bush's efforts to improve on his standing among black voters. Bush won 9 percent of the black vote in 2000.
Privately, other Republicans have expressed similar concerns. Several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in a conference arranged by Lott's office on Friday night, Nickles and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., both raised questions about the long-term impact of Lott's comments on the party and the president.
Frist declined comment on Nickles' proposal.
Also weighing on the minds of Republicans are remarks by McConnell suggesting that Lott might resign the Senate if he were to lose his leadership post.
While the GOP scored enough gains in the November elections to hold a majority, they will have only 51 seats in January.
Should Lott resign, the Democratic governor of Mississippi would be in a position to name a replacement, potentially creating a 50-50 tie. At that point, the party switch of just one Republican senator _ similar to the one made by Vermont's Jim Jeffords when he became an independent in 2001 _ would return the Democrats to power.
For their part, many Democrats seemed content to let the Republicans struggle on their own, preferring not to interfere.
``No, I'm not calling for him to resign, to step down from his position. I think that must be left to his Republican colleagues and to other people that he may consult with, including the president,'' said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.
Not even all the Republicans lined up to speak for Lott on the television programs sounded certain of his survival.
``Well, you know ... that remains to be seen,'' said retiring Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the only black Republican in Congress.