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Senate Votes for Closed-Door Deliberations

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Edward Walsh and Spencer Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A10

    The first roll call vote in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton fell largely but not exclusively along party lines yesterday as most Republicans voted to conduct the first deliberations among senators in the case behind closed doors while most Democrats favored opening the session to the public.

    The 57 to 43 vote against holding the deliberations in public was 24 votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to suspend the Senate's rules in order to hold open deliberations in the impeachment proceeding.

    Five Democrats -- Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (Md.) -- joined all but three Republicans in opposing the attempt to open the session. The three GOP dissenters who joined the majority of the Senate's 45 Democrats in supporting public deliberations were Sens. Susan M. Collins (Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).

    "The sergeant at arms will please close the doors," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intoned as soon as the roll call vote was complete.

    The procedural skirmish came after the House impeachment managers and Nicole K. Seligman, one of Clinton's lawyers, completed two hours of public arguments over a motion by Byrd to dismiss the charges against the president. At that point, Senate rules for impeachment proceedings called for senators to debate the dismissal motion among themselves in closed session.

    But Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) objected, making a motion to suspend the rules to allow public debate among senators. There was no debate over the Harkin-Wellstone motion before it was defeated.

    Maryland's two Democratic senators, Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, split on the issue. "My constituents and all Americans deserve to hear Senate deliberations from senators, not leakers and speculators and commentators," Mikulski said of her vote to open the deliberations. "The public has a right to know and a right to be heard. It is more important than ever."

    Sarbanes said: "I sort of agreed with Senator Byrd, who didn't want to suspend the rules. That issue will come back before us again, so you know, I may take a different view down the road."

    Sarbanes was part of the Democratic team that helped broker the Senate's initial bipartisan procedural agreement with the Republican majority, which made no provision for public deliberations. He emphasized at the time the importance of maintaining a "consensus judgment" among senators to proceed in a "civil and dignified" manner.

    Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said after the vote that it made little sense to conduct Senate deliberations in secret in a case with such an extensive public record.

    A confidential transcript of the deliberations was being made, said Senate Historian Richard Baker.

    The Senate's impeachment rules stem from the only other impeachment proceeding against a president, the 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson that fell one vote short of ousting Johnson from office. Under those rules, presentations and arguments by the opposing lawyers, testimony by witnesses and votes by senators must be in public. But when senators debate issues among themselves, including whether to remove Clinton from office, the rules state that "the doors shall be closed."

    The decision to close the deliberations drew a collective groan from the several hundred people in the Senate's visitors gallery. "We wanted to watch history in the making," said Jan Flack of Washington.

    Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) said his vote to close the session was an attempt to speed the process. "There's no reason for 100 people to get up [to talk] for 15 minutes," Thomas said, adding that this is what would happen if the deliberations were open and the television cameras were on.

    Staff writers William Claiborne and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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