Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Susan Walsh  /  AP
Retiring Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., talks to reporter as he walks to his office on Capitol Hill, Tuesday.
updated 12/19/2007 3:14:55 PM ET 2007-12-19T20:14:55

Sen. Trent Lott retired from Congress late Tuesday with characteristic flair, making public with 16 minutes' notice that he would relinquish his seat when the Senate closed for business.

A press release issued by his office at 11:49 p.m. said Lott would not return to work Wednesday. The Senate turned out the lights at 12:05 a.m.

Lott spokesman Lee Youngblood said the formal announcement came so late because Lott had to resign at least a day before the Senate recesses, which could be as early as Wednesday, but wanted to vote on important bills that were being considered well into the night.

In a 35-year career, Lott, 66, rose from the Republican ranks of the House to the helm of the Senate, was toppled by his own racially insensitive remark in 2002 and reinstated as a GOP leader four years later by the thinnest of margins - winning by one vote in a last-minute bid to be the vote-counting Republican whip.

It was one of his favorite jobs. Lott, who kept at least one bullwhip in his office, seemed to relish a job others have loathed: rounding up votes in a chamber of outsized egos. But with Republicans likely to lose seats in the next election and stay in the minority, Lott said he was ready to go. One of Congress' jolliest and most effective deal-cutters, Lott sounded tired of the bitterness that ruled the chamber this year when he announced his retirement last month.

Lott himself referred to his ups and downs in recent years, quoting his Pascagoula High School motto in a speech on the Senate floor earlier Tuesday. "The glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time you fail," he said. "I have had opportunities to fail, and I have had opportunities to persevere."

There remains much affection for Lott in both parties. For hours Tuesday, his colleagues spoke on the Senate floor one after another, quoting Shakespeare and referencing, sometimes overtly, the controversy generated by Lott's comments five years earlier at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. The remarks were interpreted as support for past Southern segregationist policies.

Then the Senate did what it does most often: unanimously pass a resolution on the subject.

After a dozen "Whereases," senators resolved "That the Senate notes with deep appreciation the retirement of Chester Trent Lott; Extends its best wishes to Trent Lott and his family; (and)Honors the integrity and outstanding work Trent Lott has done in service to his country."

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