They say there's nothing riskier than standing between Sen. Phil Gramm and a microphone.

But published speculation - denied by the parties involved - is that Senate Republican leader Bob Dole may be trying to do just that: Keep his potential 1996 presidential rival off center stage.Nobody will talk on the record, but Senate Republican sources speaking only on condition of anonymity say Dole has mounted a campaign to deny the Texas Republican a coveted seat on the Senate Finance Committee.

The committee will preside over headline-grabbing attempts to change the welfare system and tax code next year.

Dole's press secretary, Clarkson Hine, denies that his boss has approached Republicans with more seniority than Gramm and asked them to lay claim to one of the Finance Committee vacancies.

"There is nothing to this whole conspiracy theory," Hine said.

Newsweek and two Capitol Hill publications, Roll Call and the Congressional Monitor, have reported speculation that an attempt is being made to keep the committee Gramm-free.

For his part, Gramm says he doesn't believe it. "That would be a very petty thing and I don't choose to believe it," he told a news conference Thursday.

Gramm for weeks has said he would like to shift from the Appropriations Committee to Finance, even though the move would cost him an Appropriations subcommittee chairmanship.

But whereas once he expressed confidence the move to Finance could be easily made, Gramm now is saying "it's not a big deal" if he doesn't get one of the five vacancies.

Four of the open slots already are spoken for, and Roll Call reported that Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., probably would get the fifth.