NBC News has learned that Trent Lott in the midst of informing close allies that he plans to resign his Senate seat before the end of the year. It's possible a formal announcement of his plans could take place as early as today. Lott's office initially denied that he would step down, but subsequent requests for information about his plans went unanswered.
While the exactly reason Lott is stepping down before he finishes his term is unknown, NBC's Ken Strickland reports, the general speculation is that a quick departure immunizes Lott against tougher restrictions in a new lobbying law that takes effect at the end of the year. That law would require Senators to wait two years before entering the lucrative world of lobbying Congress.
Also unclear that this point is how Lott's seat would be filled. One Lott supporter in the know said he hoped GOP Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour would appoint Rep. Chip Pickering to the post, keeping the seat in the hands of Republicans, at least in the short term.
Lott's departure would also leave a vacancy in the Senate GOP Leadership. Lott is currently the Republican Whip, the No. 2 slot behind Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. We're told Lott is backing Arizona Republican Jon Kyl to replace him, but that will be determined by secret ballot within the Republican caucus.
The New York Times front-pages this story today: "Confronting an enormous fund-raising gap with Democrats, Republican Party officials are aggressively recruiting wealthy candidates who can spend large sums of their own money to finance their Congressional races, party officials say."