Mississippi's Trent Lott, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, announced Monday that he would retire by the end of the year, saying, "It's time to do something else."
Mr. Lott is the sixth Senate Republican to announce his retirement this year and the first member of the leadership of either chamber to decide to leave by year's end. His retirement is a blow to Republicans who are working to overcome the impression that their party will remain in the minority after the 2008 elections. The announcement surprised political observers, since it came barely a year after Lott won reelection to a six-year term.
Appearing before supporters in Pascagoula, Miss., the senator said his 35 years in Congress – 16 in the House and 19 in the Senate – were "quite a wild ride, a very enjoyable one." The Senate minority whip said, "Let me make it clear. There are no problems." He added, "This is not a negative thing. There is no malice and no anger."
In explaining the timing of the decision, Lott said that he and his wife, Tricia, recently attended a service at a Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss. The preacher cited the verse from Ecclesiastes about there being "a time to every purpose under heaven." The senator said, "It seemed to be speaking to me and to us."
Lott also said that new restrictions on lobbying that take effect Dec. 31 "didn't have a big role" in his decision. The new regulations extend the "cooling off" period for former members of Congress from one to two years.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, will appoint someone to take Lott's place until the 2008 elections are held. Lott's resignation means the Republicans will be defending 23 seats in next year's elections, as compared with only 12 for the Democrats.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership, announced he would run for the whip position Lott is vacating.
Reporters at the announcement asked Lott if he were in line to be chancellor of the University of Mississippi. He responded that he "didn't have anything definitely lined up."
Lott's election last year as whip was widely seen as a major political rehabilitation. In 2002, he was forced out as Republican leader of the Senate in the wake of remarks he made at a birthday party for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. His comments were interpreted as supporting Thurmond's earlier segregationist stand. "I took a few licks, I made some mistakes," Lott said.
Lott, who wrote a book, "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics," summed up his political career at Monday's press conference saying, "I've loved it and hope I've made a positive difference."