Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, ousted from the top Senate Republican leadership job four years ago because of remarks considered racially insensitive, won election to the chamber's No. 2 GOP post Wednesday.
Asked whether he felt vindicated by the 25-24 secret ballot vote, Lott deferred to newly-elected party leader Mitch McConnell.
"The spotlight belongs on him," Lott said of his Kentucky colleague.
McConnell, who was uncontested and will succeed Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, predicted that he and the rest of the newly-elected GOP team will provide a muscular opposition to the new Democratic majority.
"We will be a robust minority, a vigorous minority, and, hopefully, a minority that is only in that condition for a couple of years," McConnell said.
Lott's comeback-kid victory was generating the most buzz in the Capitol hallways. Pressured to step down from the Senate's top spot over four years ago, Lott returned to the center of power by nosing out Sen. Lamar Alexander, who had made an 18-month bid for the post.
"I'm honored to be a part of this leadership team, to support Mitch McConnell and all of my colleagues and to do a job that I've really loved the most: count the votes," Lott said. "I'll do my very best in that effort."
For his part, Alexander was circumspect.
"Senators, like most Americans, like a comeback," Alexander said afterward, adding that he believes he lost three votes to Lott.
Lott's victory over Alexander showcases Lott's lobbying and vote-counting skills. Both men spent the night before intensely lobbying colleagues on the Senate floor -- with Lott, also a former whip, casting himself as the candidate more adept at dealmaking and Alexander pledging to be a morale-booster to a caucus still smarting over the midterm elections.
As recently as Tuesday night, Alexander's office predicted he had the support of as many as 30 Republicans senators. But Lott peeled off Alexander's supporters in part by arguing that in a Senate split by one vote, dealmaking expertise could mean the difference between Republicans passing legislation to tout in the next campaign in 2008 or risk being branded as do-nothing lawmakers.
McConnell also announced the rest of the GOP leadership roster: Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, GOP Conference Chairman; Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, policy committee chairman; John Cornyn of Texas, GOP conference vice chairman and; John Ensign of Nevada, head of the Senate GOP's campaign fundraising committee.
Lott relished his duties as majority leader but stepped down in 2002 under pressure for making remarks that were interpreted as racially insensitive. He then wrote a book about the incident, bluntly naming those in the White House and the Senate he believed had undermined him. Lott has long hinted at making a comeback bid.
More to come
The GOP whip's race was but one source of suspense in the wake of the midterm balloting, in which war-weary voters stripped President Bush's party of its majority. Congress returned to a lame-duck session to pass a budget, and the Senate was considering Bush's nomination of a new defense secretary.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats elected their leadership roster.
Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois will ascend to majority leader and majority whip, respectively.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will continue as the chairman of the party's campaign fundraising committee. Schumer also will add vice chairman to his title, making him No. 3 in the leadership and a chief strategist.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington will serve as conference secretary; Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will chair the steering committee; and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota will serve as chairman of the research-focused policy committee.
House Democrats choose their leaders on Thursday; House Republicans elect theirs on Friday.