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Public May Be Shut Out of Impeachment Debate

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  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 25, 1999; Page A13

    When the Senate begins to consider the next steps in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, the first key vote may have nothing to do with acquittal or conviction. Instead, the first vote is more likely to be about the Senate itself and whether its deliberations over Clinton's fate will be held in full public view or, as the rules now require, in closed sessions.

    As things now stand, even the debate leading up to a vote on openness also will take place behind closed doors.

    The dispute, which crosses party lines and has been pushed into the background during the opening phase of the trial, is a clash between history and modernity, between tradition as represented by rules crafted in the mid-19th century for the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and the expectations of openness in government and instant communications at the end of the 20th century.

    On one side are two Democratic senators, Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Paul D. Wellstone (Minn.), who plan to ask the Senate to suspend its rules and allow open deliberations at every stage of the Clinton trial. They are being backed by institutions that did not exist in 1868, when the Senate failed by one vote to remove Johnson from office, including the major television networks, Common Cause and Brian P. Lamb, whose C-SPAN network has made the interiors of the Senate and House chambers familiar to millions of viewers.

    "The public isn't going to believe in this political process if we go into secret or closed session," Wellstone said. "The public is not going to have trust in what we are doing if they don't get a chance to evaluate our debate and what we are saying and why we reached the conclusions we reached."

    But Harkin, Wellstone and allies face an uphill battle. Opposition stems from a widespread feeling among senators that the Clinton trial has unfolded in an orderly manner only because they were able to reach unanimous agreement on the initial steps during a closed-door meeting on Jan. 8.

    "The rule serves a good purpose," Senate Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview. "The only truly bipartisan moment we've had was a result of the closed session we had. That would not have been achieved had we been in public session."

    Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters Saturday that he was cautious about opening up the final deliberations of the trial, when the Senate will meet like a jury considering a verdict. But otherwise, he said, "I do think, as a general proposition, we should err on the side of it being open."

    Under the existing rules, handed down to today's senators from their predecessors who tried Johnson, most aspects of the Clinton impeachment proceedings are public. This includes presentations and arguments by the House managers and White House defense lawyers, any testimony by witnesses and all votes by senators.

    But whenever the senators want to debate an issue among themselves, the rules state that "the doors shall be closed." This requirement applies not only to final deliberations on whether to remove Clinton from office but any interim decisions, such as dismissing the charges (which could bring the trial to an abrupt end), deposing witnesses and calling witnesses to testify.

    In the parliamentary thicket of an impeachment proceeding, Harkin and Wellstone will need a two-thirds vote to change that rule. And if they want the debate on the merits of their proposal to be heard by the public, they will need the unanimous consent of their colleagues, always a dicey proposition except on the most routine questions.

    "It's bizarre," Harkin said of the situation.

    The impeachment rules came to today's Senate from a different era. Not only did senators in the Johnson trial debate issues in private a much more accepted practice at the time but outside the Senate chamber they refused to talk about their deliberations.

    "There was a completely different sense of propriety then," said Michael Les Benedict, a history professor at Ohio State University and author of a book on the Johnson impeachment. "Senators said nothing about their opinions on the trial. These interviews we see today didn't happen, and there was a lot of interest and rumor on where they stood."

    The news media of the mid-19th century also was different. "The sense of what the appropriate thing to do was completely different," Benedict said. "[Reporters] may have asked a couple of times, and when it became clear that the decorum of the Senate was that they weren't going to talk about it, that was that."

    Some senators are searching for only a modest concession to modern times. On Friday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) announced that she will file a motion to open only the final Senate deliberations on whether to remove Clinton from office.

    But in the fluid circumstances surrounding the impeachment proceedings, Hutchison's motion could quickly become moot. Also on Friday, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) announced that he will make a motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton, which requires only a majority vote to pass.

    It is at that point, Harkin said in an interview, that he and Wellstone will demand a vote to open the debate on dismissing the charges.

    Senators will first have to decide whether their first substantive discussion of the charges against Clinton should be conducted in public.

    "I think it's time to open the doors, let the sun shine in, let the American people watch us debate whether or not we want to dismiss these charges or not. I think the American people have that right to watch this," Harkin said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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