WASHINGTON -- In a move that could anger some on Capitol Hill, Vice President Al Gore has begun consulting with Senate Democrats about President Clinton's impeachment trial and is exploring a role for himself in the procedural disputes leading up to it.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times conducted Tuesday night but embargoed for release until today, Gore suggested that he might have to cast a tie-breaking vote in pretrial motions. Gore, whose only constitutional duty is to preside over the Senate, might be called on to break a tie vote, for instance, in such procedural matters as the admissibility of evidence.
Twice during the interview, the vice president emphasized that his views are based on "questions of first impression" still being researched by his staff.
And, wary of admonitions to the White House by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, not to "tamper with this jury!" Gore, a former senator, stressed that he does not intend to "buttonhole" his former Senate colleagues because "that would not feel appropriate."
On the other hand, Gore added, "if a senator who's a close friend calls me up or comes to visit and asks me: 'What do you think about this or that?' I'm certainly going to feel free to communicate with them in full."
Indeed Gore said he has already begun "consulting with my friends in the Senate -- about how to consult in a situation like this."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota confirmed that Gore has "indicated an interest in just talking with senators about matters." But, also mindful of a backlash, he added, "I think that's all there's been -- very informal and no advocacy of a particular position."
Still, one top Senate Republican reacted negatively on hearing of Gore's conversations with senators.
"I don't think it is" proper, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma said before repeating Byrd's warning to the White House not to try to sway senators, who will serve as jurors in the trial.
If Gore does cast votes, he would make history. During the nation's only other presidential impeachment trial, of Andrew Johnson 130 years ago, there was no vice president.
As a result, Gore said, "the precedents established by Chief Justice [Salmon] Chase probably do not, or may not, apply to the situation where there is a vice president."
The fact that he is even contemplating a potential role in the impeachment process underscores the likelihood that bewildering and complex issues may surface that hinder the trial's progress or influence its outcome.
Gore, who served as a senator from Tennessee for eight years before becoming vice president in 1993, also expressed his belief that the Senate will reach "a considered judgment" to end what he called "a hot flash of partisan extremism."
As Clinton's most dogged defender, Gore is regarded by many of his former Republican Senate colleagues as a partisan figure. Now, cast in the role of defending the president in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he has become something of a lightning rod for Republican criticism.
Perhaps concerned that Gore's remarks would only intensify those feelings, the vice president's aides played down the significance of his comments the morning after his interview.
One top staffer said Gore "is trying to give as much deference as possible to the Senate and is trying to follow Senate protocol and procedures."
A second added: "Nobody thinks it's very likely that he gets to vote in a tie."
But Michael J. Gerhardt, a William and Mary College law professor, believes Gore is right, that he may well get a chance to cast a vote.
"Where Senate impeachment rules don't apply or are silent, the regular rules of the Senate apply. This means there may be certain procedural operations that are not clearly controlled by impeachment rules where you're going have to fall back on Senate rules of procedure," said Gerhardt, author of "The Federal Impeachment Process."
Daschle agreed. "If you get into questions or proceedings prior to reaching trial the vice president obviously plays his traditional role" as the Senate's presiding officer, who is empowered to break ties, he said.
Pub Date: 12/26/98