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A Freshman With an Endgame Plan

Sen. Susan Collins Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By Lorraine Adams
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 29, 1999; Page A1

    In conversations on the intricately tiled and somewhat slippery floors of the Capitol, many of her colleagues agreed that Susan M. Collins, the freshman Republican senator from Maine, was a nice lady.

    She was polite – unfailingly so. She was pleasant – never pushy. She had short brown hair cut sensibly. She was trim and tidy in careful plain suits.

    She was not, most said, a player. After all, Collins was ranked 91st out of 100 senators.

    But the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton has created a new demi-star, however unassuming. It is her face and voice – with its New England accent flattening the vowels and sometimes the acrimony of the proceedings – that are suddenly in demand on television talk shows. It is her thinking – bipartisan, undecided and conflicted – that captures the hoped-for, if not actual, Zeitgeist of the impeachment trial.

    And it is her proposal – which she first mentioned to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) three days after Christmas over the telephone – that is being studied by the Republican leadership as a possible compromise to end the trial. In fact, her plan has gained so much credence in recent days it emerged as a key stumbling block yesterday in bipartisan talks on how to finish out the trial. The GOP rules eventually passed keep the idea alive.

    The proposal would essentially allow the Senate to adopt "findings of fact" detailing the president's alleged misconduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter before a final vote on the two articles of impeachment.

    This approach would allow senators who don't believe Clinton should be removed from office to nonetheless register their disapproval of his conduct. With far too few votes to convict him, adoption of the resolution would also deny him the opportunity to claim exoneration.

    The White House hates the idea, Democrats say it is unfair and constitutional scholars have raised concerns. But Collins thinks it would go a long way toward reassuring colleagues: "A lot of us are concerned about the message a straight acquittal would send to the White House and to the American people."

    At 46, Collins is only two years into her first elected office. But she is by no means a nunnish novice to Washington. More mentored than mentoring, she has spent most of her career as a behind-the-scenes adviser, including 12 years as a congressional aide to now-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

    Her history so far is that of a not overly confident, but still overachieving woman – who, despite her drive and ambition, remains schooled in compromise, fond of consensus. She is a child of politics: Her father was a state senator, her mother a mayor of her small home town in the farthest reaches of Maine.

    "You'd have to go back to her roots in Caribou, see her family, see how public-minded they are, how open to ideas, how intellectually engaged, to understand just how open-minded, tough-minded and fair-minded she is," Cohen said in an interview this week. "She has a very orderly mind and she is extremely smart and well-organized. She has a unique blend of capabilities. She has a real keen grasp of substance combined with a sophisticated appreciation of the political process."

    It is those habits of mind that have led Collins to become a healing force in a Senate trying to fight off the disease of crippling partisanship, in a proceeding all concerned know will be examined closely by history. In the last three weeks, as she has read the remarks, letters and records of statesmen who have considered impeachment before her, she has been aware of others, years hence, reading of her. "I want them to be able to read about what the Senate did, how we conducted ourselves, and why we did what we did, and find it ennobling," she said.

    She has kept a diary of the trial. In it, "the president is the classic Greek tragic hero, with these enormous strengths and these tragic flaws that overcome him." As she has studied – about the impeachment of a judge for drunkenness, of another who was insane – she has come to understand the humility and the gravitas required when weighing "the tragic flaws of powerful men."

    After the House voted to impeach Clinton on Dec. 19, Collins realized that she would have to judge him. As she often does when confronted with a decision, she began to read. Her current endgame plan came from those early days of study – not, she stressed, because she knew there were not enough votes in the Senate to convict the president.

    "This grew out of my own personal concern about what would happen if I found that the facts of the articles were true, but I did not find that they rose to the level of impeachable offenses," Collins said.

    "Impeachment and Presidential Immunity from Judicial Process," by University of Chicago Law School tax professor Joseph Isenbergh, came her way from a former legislative director who was also a Chicago alumnus. "We have very different political philosophies," Collins said of Isenbergh, whom she has not actually contacted. From its 40 rambling pages, Collins extracted one thought, only briefly touched upon by Isenbergh, about other impeachment trials in which the vote was split. It was this idea that she shared with Lott over the Christmas break.

    When the trial began, Collins kept talking about Isenbergh. Her staff helped her come up with what they referred to internally as "Son of Isenbergh," a plan to substitute "findings of fact" for conviction. This idea grew out of two observations. First, in Congress it is common after lengthy hearings for a report to be issued that includes findings of fact. Second, in civil lawsuits, both parties often agree to certain facts after the discovery of evidence is concluded, just before trial.

    "When she first brought it up, people said, 'What are you, crazy?'" said her chief of staff, Steven Abbott. "Then senators began coming up to her and saying, 'That makes a lot of sense.'"

    Not everybody. "Findings of fact smacks in the face of the Constitution, which says the only punishment we should consider for the president is removal from office," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "It denies the president due process."

    Still, one signal that Collins's ideas might be gaining credence came last Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," when Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said: "She's been one of the leaders in helping to try and resolve this. And I think she's done a very good job in our caucuses." Hatch and Collins are not exactly soulmates. She is a moderate and supports abortion rights; he is conservative and antiabortion.

    The next day, Monday, was a crazy day. On the television in Collins's Senate office, CNN was broadcasting the endgame proposal of the moment, one promoted by Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).

    Collins was still sequestered in a Republican caucus, but Daschle had emerged from a Democratic meeting around 11:30 a.m. to say that his party would withdraw a motion to dismiss the case if Republicans would withdraw their motion to call witnesses. Collins felt strongly that witnesses were needed. This effort at compromise simply compromised too much.

    In Collins's Senate office, the feeling among staff members was that her idea was still alive. At 12:05 p.m., the phone rang. It was Collins. The Republican caucus had just rejected the Daschle plan. "There were as many views in the caucus on how to proceed as there were senators," Abbott related. "She's going to try to make her pitch again."

    It is 14 degrees in Maine and unseasonably balmy in Washington. On the mantel in Collins's Capitol Hill home is a picture of her family, which lives in the farthest county – Aroostook – and runs a 150-year-old lumber business. Collins is one of six children surrounding a pair of gray-haired parents on their 50th wedding anniversary.

    Living alone – she has never married but would like to – her house is bare and simple, a sanctuary. Collins is having breakfast. It is always the same: cereal she packs in a suitcase from Maine, orange juice, tea. She is talking about Clinton.

    He called her once, late at night at home. They talked for about 15 minutes about campaign finance reform. It was the summer of 1997. Collins's relations with Lott were quite different from now. She had bucked Republican leadership to join forces with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) in trying to limit certain types of contributions to political parties.

    In the impeachment trial, Collins has teamed up again with Feingold, a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and the only Democrat who voted not to dismiss the case. Both believe the obstruction of justice charge against Clinton is serious and troubling. They posed a question together to House "managers" and the president's lawyers: Did the president's conversations with his secretary Betty Currie contain each of the elements of obstruction of justice and witness tampering outlined in criminal statutes?

    At the same time, Collins has some problems with the case. She wants the trial to end quickly. She has not yet been convinced by the managers that Clinton's conduct rises to the level of removal from office. And she bucked much of her own party in voting with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to open Senate impeachment deliberations to the public.

    As one of the Senate's few Republican moderates, Collins is always a potential ally of the White House, but experience has taught her to be wary of Clinton.

    When the president telephoned her that night in 1997, he told her he wanted real campaign finance reform. "We talked about whether there were Republican senators he might approach. We talked about strategy," she recalled. Did Clinton help? "I don't feel he really did. He could have made more of an effort," Collins said.

    That summer, Collins again did her homework, and worked to master the sprawl and detail of the campaign finance scandal as a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee requested numerous records from the White House. It would receive them, but often after their usefulness in questioning witnesses was past. Collins told the Portland Press Herald at the time: "I think it was an orchestrated plan to slow the production of documents."

    Over breakfast recently, Collins said she has kept such experiences out of her mind while considering impeachment. This is about the articles the House sent over, not a pattern she has observed on her own.

    But it is not easy. Particularly difficult for her to overcome is the evidence of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky – and its relevance to assessing the sexual harassment case filed by Paula Jones. For Collins, knowing that Clinton would risk a relationship involving oral sex in a study off the Oval Office made Jones's version of events in a Little Rock hotel suite in 1991 more plausible.

    But that, Collins said, has been lost in the public debate. Clinton's alleged behavior, a crude request after he exposed himself, has now been described as "making a pass."

    "These are public acts in a place of work. Lewinsky may have been consensual, but hiding it from a federal judge was not a private act," Collins said.

    Collins is only the 15th woman to serve in the Senate. She is one of nine women serving now, and one of only three current Republican female senators. Because she has benefited from the mentoring of men – Cohen and Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) – she has been sensitive to the importance that women be seen as accomplished up-and-comers, not enticing conquests. It is her sadness over how Clinton's conduct has set back all women that also drives her desire to find an appropriate manner to condemn the president's behavior.

    "There were times when the nature of some of the allegations conjured up this air of unreality," Collins said. "But then, the more I learned about the obstruction of justice charge, the more I became convinced that there were significant issues that needed to be resolved."

    Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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