WASHINGTON — The controversy surrounding Sen. Trent Lott may transform the political dynamics of a number of policy issues, from hate crimes to judicial nominations.
And the first casualty may be conservatives' hopes that the White House would take a stand against race-based affirmative action in a pending U.S. Supreme Court battle.
Key legal conservatives, including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, have wanted the administration to go on record opposing "racial preferences" in college admissions in a case involving the University of Michigan.
That issue, to be heard early next year, tests whether the nation's colleges and universities can continue to give an edge to black and Latino applicants.
But President Bush's political advisors and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales have argued that the administration should steer clear of the case.
While the Bush team has a month to decide on its position, the spillover from the Lott controversy has tipped the scales against the opponents of affirmative action, officials say.
Conservatives admit that they are worried about the sudden change in the political climate.
"The Trent Lott situation is making it much more difficult, but there's still an effort to press the administration to do the right thing," said Linda Chavez, a strong foe of race-based admissions policies. Chavez withdrew her nomination as Bush's Labor secretary amid revelations that she allowed an illegal immigrant to live in her house.
The flap over affirmative action is an early sign that the furor over Lott's comments seeming to endorse segregation will have implications that reach far beyond the fate of one man and the Senate GOP leadership. The issue has increased sensitivities in the White House, where Republicans fear that anything they do will be interpreted as racist.
The spotlight on the race issue is expected to transform -- at least in the short term -- the political dynamics on a range of issues, from hate-crimes legislation to election reform.
"Given Sen. Lott's comments and the attention that's been focused on the Republican Party's civil rights record, everything the administration does now will be viewed through a civil rights lens," said Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
The heightened sensitivity over racial issues may also spell trouble for several of Bush's judicial nominees, including Mississippi Judge Charles W. Pickering and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn Kuhl, who supported racially discriminatory Bob Jones University in a 1981 Supreme Court case.
Conservatives who are working on the legal challenge to affirmative action say they have met with key officials in the Justice and Education departments and at the White House.
Until recently, they had hoped the administration would file a friend-of-the-court brief that opposed the use of a race-based admissions policy.
"We wanted them to make a principled statement about taking race out of the equation," said Chavez, who heads the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va.
"If it were up to Ashcroft and Olson ... they would come in on our side," said Curt Levey, a lawyer for the Center for Individual Rights, which represents white students challenging the University of Michigan policy. "But the people in the White House are pushing hard the other way."
On Capitol Hill, a key question is whether other Republicans will respond to the criticism of Lott by showing new support for civil rights measures they have opposed.
That has been an important part of Lott's own effort to quell the controversy: He has disavowed his vote as a congressman against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday and made a strong commitment to support affirmative action.
He also has promised to support full funding for an election reform initiative that sponsors said would help safeguard minority voting rights.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a longtime civil rights leader who publicly accepted Lott's apology for his remarks, predicted other Republicans will face political pressure to show more sympathy for the interests of minorities.
"Some of the more conservative members and moderates will try to get right on the question of race by supporting legislation that is going to benefit minorities," Lewis said.
But a spokesman for incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said House GOP leaders had no plans to follow Lott's lead and put new emphasis on minority interests. Instead, the House leaders will push ahead with a planned legislative agenda of tax cuts and support for anti-terrorism efforts.
"These are huge issues of war and peace, pocketbook issues that are fundamental to everybody, regardless of race," said Stuart Roy, DeLay's press secretary. "It's not a time to throw in legislation for the sake of trying to demonstrate some attribute."