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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 19:09 GMT
US Senate leader steps down
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott
Trent Lott has apologised for his remarks
The Republican Party leader in the United States Senate, Trent Lott, is stepping down from the post.

His departure follows widely criticised remarks earlier this month when he spoke approvingly of a presidential candidate in the 1940s who had favoured racial segregation.

In a statement, Mr Lott said he would resign before the next US Congress - elected in November - convened.

Republican Senator Bill Frist
Frist had indicated he would challenge Lott
"To all those who offered friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful," he said.

Mr Lott said he would remain in the Senate - maintaining the narrow Republican majority.

He has repeatedly apologised for his remarks, saying that he had made a "terrible mistake", but denying he was racist.

President George W Bush, who took the unusual step of criticising the remarks, said he understood and respected Mr Lott's decision.

"Trent is a valued friend, and a man I respect," Mr Bush said in a statement.

The BBC's Rob Watson says his departure is an indication of the changing attitude towards racial prejudice in the United States, and the Republican Party's determination not to be seen as the party of the white and the privileged.

Pressure

The Senate majority leader has been under heavy pressure to quit his post.

Mr Lott had been scheduled to face a meeting of US Senate Republicans on 6 January on whether he should remain their leader.

But his statement said: "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 6 January 2003."

"I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate."

Trent Lott behind Strom Thurmond at Mr Thurmond's 100th birthday party
To all those who offered friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful

Trent Lott
Senate majority leader

Mr Bush said he welcomed Mr Lott's decision to stay in the Senate.

"I am pleased he will continue to serve our nation in the Senate, and I look forward to working with him on our agenda to make America safer, stronger and better," Mr Bush's statement said.

The president had not been told beforehand of Mr Lott's decision to step down, his spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.

Mr Fleischer said Mr Bush had not believed the Senate leader had to step down over the comments.

However, Senator Bill Frist - seen as a close ally of the president - had said he intended to challenge Mr Lott for his job.

Our correspondent says it always seemed unlikely Mr Lott would survive after remarks he made at a 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond.

At the party, Mr Lott said the country would not have had all the problems it had if Mr Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.

Mr Thurmond ran on a platform of racial segregation.

Mr Lott's remarks produced a storm of protest throughout the country.

He was strongly rebuked by black organisations, President Bush and just about the whole of the Republican party, our correspondent says.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Nick Bryant in Washington
"His repeated apologies couldn't undo the damage"
  Senator Trent Lott
"I take full responsibility for my remarks"
See also:

20 Dec 02 | Americas
20 Dec 02 | Americas
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20 Dec 02 | Americas
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