Lott was for a long time the Republican leader in the Senate, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss, but he was forced to step down four years ago after some racially insensitive remarks. Lott decided to launch a comeback and won election for the number two leadership job by just a single vote, beating out Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Asked whether he feels vindicated by the 25-24 secret ballot, Lott deferred to McConnell. "The spotlight belongs on him," Lott said of his Kentucky colleague, unanimously chosen to succeed Sen. Bill Frist as the Senate GOP leader.
But Lott's comeback-kid victory was generating the most buzz in the Capitol hallways, nevertheless.
"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."
His 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 deal-making 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, deal-making 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.
Remaining neutral was McConnell, who was uncontested to be the Republican minority leader. He'll replace Frist, R-Tenn., who is retiring from the Senate under a self-imposed term limit and is a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in two years.
Lott relished his duties as majority leader but stepped down in 2002 under pressure over remarks that were interpreted as racially insensitive. He has long hinted at making a comeback bid.
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 Mr. Bush's nomination of a new defense secretary.
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.