Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said yesterday that the tie-breaking gun control vote that Vice President Gore cast in the Senate last month may turn out to be a political detriment rather than a benefit in a run for the White House.

"The news media in its lather to distort this whole issue may be wrong in their estimation that this will help Al Gore," Lott said in an interview. "As a matter of fact, it may already have hurt him, and it may hurt him a lot more."

With the Senate deadlocked at 50-50 on May 20, Gore employed the vice president's prerogative to break ties and voted in favor of gun control proposals that included mandatory background checks for sales at gun shows. Gore seemed eager to play such a role and expressed pleasure at a news conference held moments later.

Some Republicans have grumbled privately that Lott committed a major political blunder by allowing Gore, whose presidential campaign was stumbling, the opportunity to vote on behalf of legislation that is popular in the polls.

But Lott said the gun issue varies from state to state.

"In a lot of places, people don't agree with what he did and how he voted. I don't think it helped him," Lott said. "Certainly, his poll numbers haven't gone up."

In response, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said: "Once again, the Republican leadership is showing just how out of touch they are with the American people. Bottom line is the American people want real meaningful reform."

Lott also said he had spoken with President Clinton and written him a letter in hopes of defusing a controversy that has led a fellow Republican to block confirmation of all pending presidential nominations.

He said Clinton's decision to use his constitutional authority to appoint James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg without confirmation during a congressional recess "broke the process" that had been in effect for the past few years.

Some conservative senators opposed the appointment of Hormel, who is gay, but recess appointments are not subject to Senate confirmation. When Clinton employed the tactic, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) retaliated by saying he would block all pending nominations.

Lott said his letter asked Clinton to make a commitment to revert to an earlier procedure. He said that until the Hormel nomination, the administration had notified the Senate before a recess appointment was made to see whether it was possible to approve it through the regular process.

Lott's comments on gun control were his first explanation of his handling of an issue that frequently seems to put Republicans in disarray on the Senate floor.

"While it may not have been pretty, it was focused; we dealt with it, and the Senate moved on," he said.

Lott said he knew the night before the gun control vote that there might be a tie and that he considered asking for someone to switch a vote. That would have allowed the measure to pass, but would have denied Gore the spotlight.

"Sure, you always consider that," he said. But Lott quickly added, "It's one thing to try to get somebody to switch a vote on something that maybe is not as consequential as this was. . . . I thought it would have been inappropriate to get somebody who had already voted on an issue maybe once or twice to switch their vote just to avoid Al Gore casting this vote."

CAPTION: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott responds to GOP grumbling over vote.