Last February, Al Gore abruptly broke away from his presidential campaign in New York and raced back to Washington. Foreign policy crisis? Illness in the family? Stock market crash? Nope. Gore wanted to be on hand, just in case he was needed to cast the tie-breaking vote on an abortion-rights amendment being considered by the Senate. The amendment passed easily, 80 to 17, but that didn't prevent Gore from grandstanding on his role. "My job is to preside over the Senate. And in the event there is a tie vote, the Constitution provides that I am the vote," said Gore. "The issue is so important and I am not going to take a chance to see it fail."
Democrats praised him, and he used the occasion to highlight his stand in favor of abortion rights. Republicans criticized Gore, calling his dramatic Washington appearance "political theater." "We're never going to let him break a tie vote again," vowed Senate Majority Leader, Tent Lott.
The Republicans were true to Lott's word: Gore hasn't had a chance to cast such a vote since May, 1999. But during his seven-and-a-half years as vice president, Gore has exercised his Constitutional duty four times. That's a fairly active record: There have been 11 vice presidents who never had the chance to cast a single such vote during their term (including Gore's predecessor, Dan Quayle). And no vice president since 1873 has cast more than eight.
His votes? Two 1993 tie-breakers on the administration's deficit reduction, a 1994 ballot in favor of preserving ethanol tax subsidies and a 1999 vote requiring background checks at gun shows.
On the stump, Gore tailors his voting record to his audience. During the primaries, he tried to sway Midwestern farmers by touting his support of the ethanol bill and reminding voters that his Democratic opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley, was opposed to the subsidies. Ten days before the Iowa caucuses, Gore led Bradley by more than 20 points.
Last year, after casting the tie-breaking vote on gun registration, Gore passionately spoke about the measure's importance to the families who were victimized by gun violence. But gun control isn't as strong an issue as it was just after the Columbine school shooting. And in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington--places with both big hunting populations and substantial electoral college votes--the issue has become a rallying cry for Republican candidates opposed to gun control. Well aware of this, Gore chose his words carefully during the second presidential debate. He appealed to gun-control constituents by plainly stating that he "favor[ed] closing the gun show loophole. In fact, I cast the tie-breaking vote to close it, but then the majority in the House of Representatives went the other way." But Gore also noted that he "will not do anything to affect the rights of hunters or sportsmen."
But the vice president saves his real fire on the campaign trail for the 1993 budget bill votes. "I had the honor of casting the tie-breaking vote to end the old economic plan here at home and put into place a new economic plan that has helped us to make some progress: 22 million new jobs and the greatest prosperity ever," Gore said during this year's first presidential debate.
But how much credit does Gore actually deserve for his Senate voting record? Very little, argues Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He was certainly among the most active vice presidents in history, but not because he cast four tie-breaking votes," Hess says. "You vote the way the administration wants you to vote--there's no flexibility."