"I honestly believe this will transform what has occurred in the last few weeks, what has occurred at the moment in history, into a catalyst - a catalyst for unity and a catalyst for positive change," Frist said, elected unanimously Monday as the new GOP leader during an extraordinary telephone caucus.
The Republican Party has been distracted for the past two weeks by the uproar over Lott's remarks lauding Sen. Strom Thurmond's pro-segregationist presidential run of 1948. Lott apologized to no avail, and the GOP felt it had to replace the Mississippi senator to get its focus back.
With Frist as the new face of the Senate Republican Caucus, GOP senators hope people will now pay attention to their legislative policies instead of Lott's two-week-old remarks.
"We are now back on track and ready to move forward in a positive vein," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the Senate's No. 3 Republican.
Moments after being elected, Frist called his first GOP leadership meeting over the telephone and began mapping out next year's issues for the Republican Senate.
During the conference call that installed him as leader, which included an apologetic Lott, Frist told his colleagues about "the importance of hitting the ground with some momentum early in January," said one participant who spoke condition of anonymity.
Even so, it may take time for Frist to be ready to move full speed ahead on such measures, with January being his first month in charge of the entire Senate.
In the interim, Republicans will focus in January on extending unemployment benefits and finishing the 11 overdue spending bills for the federal budget year that began Oct. 1, Santorum said.
Frist, 50, equated his new leadership post with his original career as a heart transplant surgeon. Frist still performs volunteer operations in this country and in annual medical missions to Africa.
"A few moments ago, my colleagues gave me a responsibility equal to that, and in some ways, many would say, even a heavier responsibility," he said. "I accepted that responsibility with a profound sense of humility very similar to placing that heart into a dying woman or a child or a man."
Frist has worked closely with White House officials, including during his supervision of recent GOP campaign efforts that gave them an Election Day takeover of the Senate for next year. President Bush congratulated Frist in a written statement.
"Senator Frist has earned the trust and respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle," said President Bush. "I look forward to working with him and all members of the Senate and House to advance our agenda for a safer, stronger and better America."
Frist said that after speaking with his GOP colleagues, his first call was to the man who will be minority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
"I hope we can work together to promote economic security and justice for all Americans, protect America from terrorism and deal with other urgent needs of our nation," Daschle said.
Monday's conference call lasted about a half-hour and was the first time a Senate party leader had been elected by lawmakers dispersed throughout the country, said Senate historian Richard Baker. Senate leadership elections are normally done by secret ballot in a Capitol meeting room.
The haste with which leaders scheduled the call - three days after Lott quit, and four days after Frist announced his candidacy to succeed him - underlined the party's desire to put the Lott episode behind them.
"This was obviously not a joyous celebration," Santorum told reporters afterward. Sen. George Allen of Virginia said the tone of the phone call was "one of prayerful solemnity."
Frist was nominated by veteran Sen. John Warner of Virginia, incoming moderate Norm Coleman of Minnesota and conservative Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Each represents a wing of the GOP that Frist will have to bring together.
Participants said Lott thanked his colleagues for letting him lead them for six years and offered to help the new leadership team. He showed no signs of bitterness and made no reference to his comments on Sunday, when he complained to The Associated Press, "There are some people in Washington who have been trying to nail me for a long time."
By Jesse J. Holland