(Corrects paragraph 11 to clarify Democratic control of the Senate)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Trent Lott, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, on Monday announced he will retire this year, five years before his term expires and ending the conservative’s 34-year career in Congress.
“I am announcing today that I will be retiring from the Senate by the end of the year,” Lott said in his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi.
“Let me make it clear, there are no (health) problems. I feel fine. I may look my 66 years, but I honestly feel good,” said the former college cheerleader.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is expected to pick a fellow Republican to take the seat until the next congressional and presidential election in November 2008, when Barbour said he would call a special election. The conservative state’s other senator, Thad Cochran, is also a Republican and is running for re-election next year.
Speculation that Lott was considering retiring so he could make more money in the private sector began about two years ago after his Mississippi home was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Lott is ending his Senate career after making a remarkable political recovery from a gaffe in 2002 that cost him his position as Senate majority leader.
At a 100th birthday celebration for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who ran unsuccessfully for president as a segregationist in 1948, Lott was quoted saying that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Thurmond for president and that “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”
President George W. Bush and then-Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, were said to have helped nudge Lott out of his leadership job. But on Monday, Bush had only kind words for Lott, saying “his immense talent will be missed in our nation’s capital.”
Lott made a series of apologies to black organizations and others for the remark he that he said had been misinterpreted, and gradually worked his way back into the Republican leadership.
John Bruce, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, said Charles Pickering, a Republican congressman from Mississippi, was the most likely candidate to replace Lott.
Democrats currently hold a narrow majority in the 100-member Senate with 49 seats and two independents who often vote with them. Lott is the sixth Republican to announce his retirement, putting those seats in more competitive play in 2008. No Senate Democrats have yet announced they would not run for re-election.
Lott was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 before entering the Senate in 1989. As his party’s “whip” in the Senate since January, he has been responsible for legislative strategy and ensuring that minority Republicans mostly stick together on key votes.
Lott was a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, loyally defending then-President Richard Nixon when the panel passed articles of impeachment on Watergate.
His retirement announcement kicked off a scramble among Senate Republicans for his leadership post, with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Jon Kyl of Arizona possibly seeking the job, according to aides.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington and Matthew Bigg in Atlanta
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