THE SENATE has been handed an opportunity to circumscribe one of its own worst practices. Sen. James Inhofe announced this week that he was placing a hold on all presidential nominations, including those of Lawrence Summers as Treasury secretary and Richard Holbrooke as ambassador to the United Nations, to protest the president's recess appointment of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg.

It's a clumsy move, made all the more so by the fact that the senator's principal objection to the nomination was that Mr. Hormel happens to be gay. Now, however, Mr. Inhofe presents himself as a defender, not of the country against the prospect that it might have a gay ambassador, but of the Senate against an assault by the president on the power to advise and consent. The senator said the hold will last until the administration agrees to limits on the use of the constitutionally conferred recess appointment power, whereby presidents can take advantage of temporary Senate absences to make appointments lasting through a Congress.

It's fair enough for the Senate to vote down presidential nominations; the senators then become accountable for those votes like all others. What is not fair is to deny votes on timely nominations -- simply hold them in limbo -- and surely it is not fair to give individual senators the power to do so. You might think the Senate would have too much self-respect to allow itself thus to be held up, but senators are loath to deny the prerogative to others lest they end up losing it themselves.

The recess appointment power can itself be abused, but the White House says President Clinton has made much less use of it than his two immediate predecessors. Majority Leader Trent Lott, who also opposed both Mr. Hormel's nomination and the recess appointment, said nonetheless the other day that it would not be his "inclination" to place a hold on all other nominations "indefinitely." If Sen. Inhofe persists in what is a doubly indefensible position, he ought to be voted down.