"It's time for us to do something else," Lott said, speaking for himself and his wife Tricia at a news conference.
Lott, 66, said he had notified President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Sunday about his plans. Barbour, a Republican, will name someone to temporarily replace Lott.
"There are no problems. I feel fine," Lott said.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who helped broker a bipartisan immigration bill that went down to defeat this year despite Mr. Bush's support for it, will run to replace Lott as the Republicans' vote-counting whip, said spokesman Ryan Patmintra.
Lott described his 16 years in the House and 19 in the Senate "a wild ride - and one that I'm proud of."
He said he was leaving with "no anger, no malice."
Lott's colleagues elected him as the Senate's Republican whip last year, a redemption for the Mississippian after his ouster five years ago as the party's Senate leader over remarks he made at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. Lott had saluted the South Carolina senator with comments later interpreted as support for southern segregationist policies.
Mr. Bush did not stand behind Lott after his remarks about Thurmond, increasing pressure on the lawmaker to step down from the No. 1 Senate job.
Asked about his conversation Sunday with the president, Lott said, "He was very kind in his remarks. Over the years we've had our ups and downs, good times and bad times, both of us." Mr. Bush, Lott said, "felt like I'd be missed in my role" as Senate minority whip.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Lott a "true friend."
"Senator Lott is one of the strongest defenders of the institution of the Senate and one of the most pleasant Senators I have ever worked with," the Nevada Democrat said. "I am proud to have worked side-by-side with such a distinguished public servant as Trent Lott and I wish him well as he leaves the Senate."
After the 2006 elections, when Democrats recaptured the Senate, Lott was put in charge of lining up and counting Republican votes as whip, the No. 2 job behind minority leader Mitch McConnell.
Lott, who said he wanted "to be able to leave on a positive note," said he began thinking about retiring in August. His term runs through 2012.
He said he doesn't have a new job lined up and that new restrictions on lobbying that take effect after Dec. 31, 2007 "didn't have a big role" in his decision to retire. The regulations extend the "cooling off" period for lobbying by former members of Congress from one to two years.
Lott becomes the sixth Senate Republican this year to announce retirement. Democrats effectively hold a 51-49 majority in the chamber, including two independents who align themselves with Democrats. His retirement means that Republicans will have to defend 23 seats in next year's election, while Democrats have only 12 seats at stake.
Lott expressed some frustration with the pace of progress on legislation under Democratic leadership, and said it was clearly better to be in the majority. But he also said that politicians often take themselves too seriously.
"In Washington, in life, we tend sometimes to get to thinking that we are especially anointed that only we can do this job, but somebody will pick up the flag and carry on."
Barbour said he will appoint an interim senator within 10 days of Lott's resignation and will set a special election for Nov. 4, 2008 to coincide with the general election. The governor also ruled out taking the job himself, which had been the subject of speculation.
"I will not be a candidate for senator in the special election, and obviously, I won't appoint myself to fill the vacancy on an interim basis," Barbour, who won a second term this month, said in a news release. He called Lott's decision "a terrible loss for Mississippi and for the country."
Lott's seat is likely to remain Republican. GOP Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi, a former Lott aide who recently announced his retirement from the House, is widely seen as a potential successor. Pickering issued a statement calling Lott "a great statesman" who "has been a mentor to me." He did not say, however, whether he would seek the Senate job.
Lott's 2006 comeback was an apt outlet for the Mississippian's talents. He was the rare majority leader who seemed to relish the vote-wrangling duties that some of his predecessors loathed.
But the smooth-spoken Mississippian found himself in hot water in December 2002 after going too far in his praise of Thurmond at the South Carolinian's 100th birthday party. Lott said Mississippi voters were proud to have supported Thurmond when he ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1948, and added: "If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
A few days later, Lott issued a statement saying he had made "a poor choice of words" that "conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth."
But the damage was done and Mr. Bush distanced himself from Lott's remarks, telling an audience the comments "do not reflect the spirit of our country."
Lott then made a round of public appearances, saying he regretted "reopening old wounds and hurting so many Americans." He told Black Entertainment Television he would use his position to help push through initiatives that would benefit minorities. (Read more about that interview in "Couric & Co" |
Lott later wrote in a book - "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics" - that Mr. Bush hurt his feelings by disavowing the comments in a tone that was "devastating ... booming and nasty."
Another event during Lott's exile changed his relationship with the White House: Hurricane Katrina. The massive storm devastated Lott's home state, not to mention his oceanside home in Pascagoula. For him, the administration's bungled response was personal. He considered retiring.