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For Bob Bennett, a Tall Order in the Senate

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page C1

    Bob Bennett rises above all others in the Senate. He can perform feats that his colleagues cannot, and so they look up to him.

    During a recent Republican caucus meeting in the high-ceilinged Mike Mansfield Room, several senators noticed that George Washington's portrait, looming over them all, was tilting. Clearly unacceptable. A few took stabs at righting it, but they were too short. A job for Bob Bennett: When you are 6 feet 6 inches tall, you can straighten lofty paintings effortlessly. And so he did. And that's just another illustration of Bob Bennett's stature in the Senate.

    Now the junior senator from Utah is leading the effort to recruit 20 or more fellow Republicans to back a bipartisan measure to censure President Clinton, and though he's a giant in this body, the recruitment ain't easy.

    "I'm a little concerned about it personally," says Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). "There would have to be an awful lot of debate about wording."

    "It has to include the word lie," says Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

    "I've never been very supportive of censure," says Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). "I don't think there's any place in the Constitution for censure."

    "No, I don't care if it's written in gold," says Rod Grams (R-Minn.). "We're not here to persecute this man. We're not here to punish him."

    Then what are you here for?

    There will be no conviction in the Clinton impeachment trial. That much has been known for weeks, if not months. That's why, during a day when the Senate began deliberating the president's fate in private, senators were either blabbering about or quietly mulling some form of written reprimand. They were talking about it in front of the microphones, in their private meetings, on their private elevators and even in full public view.

    During one trial break Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the Democrats' chief censure drafter, left her regular Senate seat and squatted between Bennett and Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who's been helping Bennett look for votes.

    Winning votes is tricky. Which is why there have been twenty-odd versions of censure drafted and floated, and the number of drafts is climbing. One version calls Clinton's behavior "shameless, reckless, indefensible" and talks about his "disrespect for the laws of the land." Words and phrases get inserted, scratched out, replaced, only for the old language to be reinstated, then revised. In this process, every word is analyzed for possible multiple meanings – "wordsmithed," as Feinstein puts it.

    And so there she was on the Senate floor yesterday, wordsmithing with Bennett. As all in the public galleries could see, Feinstein was briefing him and Jeffords on the latest, with Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) hovering over the group. Her finger was tracing words, explaining words to her cohorts. Which words? Who knows? That was impossible to determine.

    Depending on one's perspective, though, censure is either a way to close this scandal on a bipartisan note of condemnation – rather than the inevitable acquittal – or a misguided effort to unleash frustration that will have consequences for future presidents. The phrase opponents used over and over again was "constitutional precedent." Future Senates will be censuring presidents for firing military commanders. They will be censuring Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officers. Where will it stop?

    Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) has said he will filibuster a censure proposal if it comes to the floor. So here's where the math comes into play: Democrats say they have about 40 votes for censure. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. Thus, Bennett's challenge is to get at least 20 of the 55 Republicans on board.

    Surely, this gangly, loquacious fellow has been persuasive in combating the sadly wrongheaded thinking of the Phil Gramms of his party.

    "It's kind of a work in progress," says Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "But he's working."

    Bennett has that Andy of Mayberry quality about him. Geez, aw shucks. And he knows something about lobbying and the underside of politics.

    He was once a Washington lobbyist for J.C. Penney. He was once chief lobbyist for Nixon's Transportation Department. He was once president of a public relations firm that employed Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt and had as a client the CIA, which used the company as a cover for agents abroad. He once worked for Howard Hughes.

    In his first campaign for the Senate in 1992, Bennett had to confront charges that he was "Deep Throat," the famously anonymous Watergate source used by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Turns out Bennett was a source for Woodward, just not "Deep Throat."

    His father, Wallace Bennett, was a four-term senator from Utah, so young Bob has been watching and playing politics at least since he was 17.

    But he's never had to rustle up votes to rebuke a president the Senate can't convict.

    "I think he knows where I stand," says Grams. "So I don't think he's going to waste his time trying to convert me. I'm in stone on this one."

    John Warner (R-Va.) has listened to Bennett's pitch, but isn't moved. "He speaks very eloquently, though."

    "I'm for talking about it," says Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), but he says he wants to wait until the Senate votes up or down on articles of impeachment.

    The senior senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, is wary. But he wants to give his Utah partner more than the usual collegial consideration. "I'm really wavering on that. . . . I may support him because he is my colleague." But he hasn't made up his mind.

    "Oh, we're having a lively discussion. Everybody's pushing their ideas," says Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), "but that's down the road."

    But how far down the road? If not this week, when? Next week the Senate is scheduled to be on a weeklong recess. Senators will return home, Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) figures, listen to the American people, and Bob Bennett's cause will be just about dead.

    "I don't know which senators will want to lead that fight," says Hagel. "I can just imagine how popular that's going to be."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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