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Lott: Gore's Gun Vote May Boomerang Lott: Gore's Gun Vote May Boomerang

By David Espo
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 1999; 8:52 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Majority Leader Trent Lott said today the tie-breaking gun control vote that Vice President Al Gore cast in the Senate last month may turn out to be a political detriment rather than a benefit in a run for the White House.

``The news media in its lather to distort this whole issue may be wrong in their estimation that this will help Al Gore,'' Lott said in an interview. ``As a matter of fact, it may already have hurt him and it may hurt him a lot more.''

With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50 on May 20, Gore employed the vice president's prerogative to break ties and voted in favor of gun control proposals that included mandatory background checks for sales at gun shows. Gore seemed eager to play such a role and expressed pleasure at a news conference held moments later.

Some Republicans have grumbled privately that Lott committed a major political blunder by allowing Gore, whose presidential campaign was stumbling, the opportunity to vote on behalf of legislation that is popular in the polls.

But the Mississippi Republican said the gun issue varies from state to state.

``In a lot of places people don't agree with what he did and how he voted. I don't think it helped him,'' Lott said. ``Certainly his poll numbers haven't gone up.''

In response, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said: ``Once again, the Republican leadership is showing just how out of touch they are with the American people. Bottom line is the American people want real meaningful reform.''

Lott made his comments as a gun control showdown loomed across the Capitol in the House.

There, Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt charged that Speaker Dennis Hastert had abdicated his leadership in the House to ``the forces that prefer that we do nothing of significance'' on the issue.

``It is not a legislative process,'' Gephardt said of a GOP-crafted schedule that has changed repeatedly in recent days. ``It is a deliberative effort to give gun control opponents every advantage while depriving gun control advocates of vital information.''

In response, Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said, ``We will have a fair and open debate regarding youth and violence despite Mr. Gephardt's best efforts.''

In the interview in his Capitol office, with its grand view down the Washington Mall, Lott said he has a favorite in the race for the White House next year, but declined to identify him.

Asked whether it was anyone other than Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Lott noted that two fellow senators -- Bob Smith of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona -- are in the race, and that contenders Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander are close friends.

``I don't think as majority leader it really would be timely or appropriate for me to endorse a specific candidate,'' he said. ``I do have a favorite. I'm trying to be helpful to him in an appropriate way.''

At the same time, in comments to a group of reporters during the day, Lott said he thought Bush had done a good job in his initial campaign foray outside Texas, and he likes what the governor has had to say.

Lott also said he had spoken with President Clinton and written him a letter in hopes of defusing a controversy that has led a fellow Republican to block confirmation of all pending presidential nominations.

He said Clinton's decision to use his Constitutional authority to appoint James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg without confirmation during a congressional recess ``broke the process'' that had been in effect for the past few years.

Some conservative senators opposed the appointment of Hormel, a homosexual, but recess appointments are not subject to Senate confirmation. When Clinton employed the tactic, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., retaliated by saying he would block all pending nominations.

Lott indicated that his letter asked Clinton to commit to revert to an earlier procedure. He said that until the Hormel nomination, the administration had notified the Senate before a recess appointment was made to see whether it was possible to approve it through the regular process.

Lott's comments on gun control were his first explanation of his handling of an issue which frequently seemed to put Republicans in disarray on the Senate floor.

``While it may not have been pretty, it was focused, we dealt with it and the Senate moved on,'' he said.

In the interview, Lott said he knew the night before the gun control vote that there might be a tie and he considered asking for someone to switch their vote. That would have allowed the measure to pass, but deny Gore a chance for the spotlight.

``Sure, you always consider that,'' he said. But Lott quickly added, ``It's one thing to try to get somebody to switch a vote on something that maybe is not as consequential as this was. ... I thought it would have been inappropriate to get somebody who had already voted on an issue maybe once or twice to switch their vote just to avoid Al Gore casting this vote.''

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press