Critics Err, Lott Not 'Four Heartbeats from the Presidency'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Critics of Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott have cited the importance of Lott's post as part of their condemnation of his allegedly racist remarks made on Dec. 5. Those critics claim that as Senate majority leader in the 108th Congress, Lott would be the fourth person in line to succeed the president. That claim is incorrect.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was apparently the first to utter the misstatement.

"I was shocked that, initially, that Trent Lott did not understand what people were offended about. I mean, that concerned me probably more than anything else," Cummings said at a press conference Dec. 10. "The fact is, is that this is a man who is four heartbeats from the presidency."

Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) repeated the mistake in the same press conference.

"I'm very, very troubled with the attitude expressed in his remarks about Senator Strom Thurmond," Watson explained, "and he being fourth in line, that that attitude might be joined by other members of the Senate."

The assertion found its way into a Newsday column by opinion writer Ellis Henican.

"The party of Lott, Thurmond, Helms and George W. Bush swears it's prepared for multicultural America. Republican campaign officials keep reminding us: 'We're the party of Lincoln, too,'" Henican wrote Dec. 11. "And yet here, 52 years later, was the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, standing at [Thurmond's] side, four heartbeats away from the presidency."

The inaccurate information was later included in a letter sent to Lott and copied to President Bush from the Black Leadership Forum (BLF).

"We firmly believe that your assumption of the office of Majority Leader, which is fourth in line for Presidential succession, is not good for us or for our nation," the group wrote Friday, "especially in this time of national turbulence."

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the BLF and a former deputy assistant director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, read the letter to the media. Scruggs-Leftwich holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a former professor in the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

According to Title 3 Section 19 of the United States Code, these current and former officials are wrong about the line of presidential succession. Lott is not only not fourth in line to become president, he is not in line to be president at all.

"If ... there is neither a President nor Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, upon his resignation as Speaker and as Representative in Congress, act as President," the law states. "If, at the time when ... a Speaker is to begin the discharge of the powers and duties of the office of President, there is no Speaker, or the Speaker fails to qualify as Acting President, then the President pro tempore of the Senate shall, upon his resignation as President pro tempore and as Senator, act as President."

The president pro tempore, according to the U.S. Senate website is "a constitutionally recognized officer of the Senate who presides over the chamber in the absence of the Vice President.

"The President Pro Tempore (or, 'president for a time') is elected by the Senate and is," the official explanation continues, "by custom, the Senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service."

Federal law also specifies the continuing line of succession through the secretaries of cabinet level federal departments.

"If ... there is no President pro tempore to act as President," 3 U.S.C. 19 continues, "then the officer of the United States who is highest on the following list, and who is not under disability to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President shall act as President: Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Veterans Affairs."

With the creation of the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, the new Secretary of Homeland Security would be 20th in line to assume occupancy of the White House.

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