Whole Lott o' blamin' goin' on

Senate Republicans are angry that their leadership let Al Gore be a hero on guns.

Published May 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Vice President Al Gore never thought that the Senate Republicans would actually give him the stage. Even as he was driven to Capitol Hill on Thursday just in case the Senate deadlocked on the gun-show loophole amendment and he was needed as a tie-breaker, neither he nor anyone on his staff thought that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., would ever allow him such a platform.

But Lott had allowed all sorts of things that few senators had anticipated. He let the Democrats plunge ahead with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg's gun control amendment, for one. And then, in the wake of yet another school shooting in Georgia, six Republicans defected, and suddenly, there they all were, tied at 50-50. After weeks of exaggeratedly bad press about his year 2000 campaign team, Gore was all too happy to ride in on his white horse and cast the deciding vote in support of gun control.

The day's events, however, brought distress to House and Senate Republicans -- and anger directly targeted at Lott and his whip, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.

"Why in God's name did they let Al Gore break the vote?" one senior GOP source fumed. Noted a GOP House leadership aide: "Everybody's concerned and wondering what the big picture plan is here. While the House has an easier ability to control the proceedings on the floor, for the Senate to throw something like that on the floor and tell the members to have at it in this climate leads to great amount of consternation and wringing of hands."

A source in the Clinton-Gore administration was no less confused. "Folks at the White House were shocked and surprised that they gave us that opportunity," the source said. "There were lots of ways that they could have avoided it. When we discussed this after it was all over, the words 'legislative malpractice' were used a lot.

"Lott himself could have prevented Lautenberg's amendment from even coming to a vote," said the official. "He could have made a motion to reconsider, which is a procedural prerogative of the Leader that would have allowed him to bring it up at another time -- or never to bring it up at all. It's just a basic floor procedure, and it's not unusual in a close vote like that -- especially when votes are changing" as they were because of the events unfolding in Conyers, Ga. "But they didn't do it."

So why did Lott allow a vote on an issue that was a GOP loser, both politically and in more concrete voting terms? Did he not know that six Republican senators -- Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, Virginia Sen. John Warner, Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee, Illinois Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, and Ohio Sens. Mike DeWine and George Voinovich -- were going to defect? Lott and his communications team were unavailable for comment.

The administration source says that "it was clear that Lott hadn't talked to anybody" and didn't know that the vote would be 50-50, thus allowing the vice-president's grand entrance. "They were just unprepared; they were caught flat-footed."

A GOP House source lays the blame squarely at the feet of Nickles, supposedly the Senate majority whip, in charge of lining up the ducks on important votes -- though he's taken to calling himself the "assistant majority leader" instead. "Where was the whip in the Senate?" the senior GOP source asks, the comparison with the tough and effective House Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, remaining unstated. "This is the death of the whip in the Senate."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke against the Lautenberg amendment, arguing that it "creates more loopholes, will be more expensive, is going to increase taxes, and it will be more bureaucratic. I think it is going to push people into the streets to sell guns on the black market, which I think undermines everything he is trying to do."

Then Gore was whisked in, and he instructed the clerk to call the roll on Lautenberg's amendment. With one Democrat voting nay -- Montana Sen. Max Baucus -- and six Republicans defecting, the final count was 50-50. "On this vote," Gore intoned, "the yeas are 50, the nays are 50. The Senate being equally divided, the vice president votes in the affirmative and the amendment is agreed to."

Bang! The gavel came down. A victory for the Democrats, a starring role for Gore.

GOP congressmen thus had an additional reason to complain. If Lott knew that the vote was going to be 50-50, why didn't he just bow out of voting or check in as "present," therefore allowing the measure to pass 50-49 without providing Gore a moment in the sun?

"We didn't think they were going to give us a chance to do that," the administration source says, "but obviously the vice president was pleased to have the opportunity to make the difference. All three networks led with basically the same story: the vice president gaveling in the vote, the Republicans in disarray, and the president in Littleton." It was a "pretty good" day for the administration, the source said.

Republicans are baffled as to why Lott would ever give Gore -- whom many Republicans detest even more so than they do Clinton -- center stage. Senate leadership reportedly explained that they wanted Gore's position on gun control on the record so as to motivate NRA members and other gun enthusiasts for the 2000 election. But this argument seems to hold little water -- gun enthusiasts regard the Clinton administration as the most anti-gun White House in American history; it's doubtful that Gore's position on the issue needed further highlighting.

The drama now shifts to the House side, where Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., and other GOP leaders had originally hoped to work closely with Minority Leader Gephardt to plan an organized and methodical approach to the gun issue. According to several House sources, Gephardt -- under pressure from Southern and Western Democrats, who oppose further gun control measures-- agreed on Thursday to Hastert's proposed schedule, under which the House would hold hearings this week and vote on various gun control measures in June.

But later that day, Gephardt met with House Democrats, and liberals reportedly lambasted him for deferring to Republicans on what is clearly a winning issue for Democrats, at least in the polls. Hours after pledging to cooperate with Hastert and the GOP leaders, Gephardt took to the floor and reneged on his agreement.
"Legislation has been debated and passed on the floor of the Senate over the past week that tried to make progress on limiting the access of kids to guns," Gephardt said. "I favor effective legislation to keep guns out of the hands of kids and hope the House will take up this legislation before we leave for Memorial Day. How many more children have to go down for all of us to accept the responsibility that we have to see that children are cared-for and loved and respected and disciplined so that this does not happen again?"

"We found out that Gephardt had changed his mind when he gave that speech," a GOP House leadership source said dispiritedly. "He didn't call us or tell us, he just gave the speech. It was confusing and disappointing. We'd had a good working relationship until then."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore Gun Control Guns Republican Party