Sept. 9, 1998

Al Gore & the 25th Amendment

Some Democratic optimists argue that President Clinton will avert impeachment because the Republicans will not want to face President Al Gore in 2000. Better a crippled lame duck than an incumbent president not hobbled by morality issues, the reasoning goes.

But the Democrats are missing two key points in this wishful thinking. First, Gore himself could be threatened by another special prosecutor examining Democratic campaign fund-raising allegations. Even if a special prosecutor is named to examine the actions of former White House aide Harold Ickes, the prosecutor could expand the mandate to cover Gore.

The appointment mechanism for selecting special prosecutors also remains in the hands of the Far Right. Since 1992, U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle has run the three-judge panel, with two Republicans and one Democrat. Sentelle is a protege of arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and has selected conservative Republicans for nearly all politically sensitive investigations.

Sentelle got his job when U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist removed Judge George Mackinnon, a moderate Republican who had offended the Reagan-Bush administrations by appointing Lawrence Walsh, another moderate Republican, to investigate the Iran-contra affair.

The little-noticed maneuver gave conservatives a virtual lock on the crucial choice of special prosecutors. So, when the Bush administration came under criticism for rifling through Bill Clinton's passport file in fall 1992, Sentelle's panel picked GOP stalwart Joseph diGenova to investigate. Despite clear evidence of Bush administration guilt, diGenova found no wrongdoing.

After a lapse in the special prosecutor statute in 1993-94, the law was reenacted and Sentelle was reappointed. He promptly engineered the removal of Whitewater special counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican, and his replacement with conservative Kenneth Starr.

If Attorney General Janet Reno determines that a special prosecutor is needed for the campaign finance probe, Sentelle again will be free to make an ideological choice who could put Gore through the same grinding process that Clinton faced.

Second, the Democrats might find that they will have little say even over the appointment of a new vice president, should Clinton be removed and Gore replace him.

The 25th Amendment, which governs presidential disability and succession, grants the president the power to nominate his choice for vice president. But the nominee must be approved by a majority vote of both the House and Senate.

If the political winds continue as they are, most experts believe that the Republicans will come out of November with solid conservative majorities in both the House and the Senate. The GOP then would hold effective veto power over Gore's choice of a vice president and could insist on a compromise candidate who would not be seen as a future political threat.


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