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Feingold Is Lone Democratic Defector

Clinton on Trial

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  • Congressional Profile: Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)

  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A18

    Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) stood alone yesterday.

    In the first meaningful test of Senate sentiment in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Feingold was the only senator of either party to break from the hardening partisan orthodoxies that are coming to define the proceedings. He voted against the motion by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to dismiss the charges against Clinton, and for the Republican-sponsored motion to depose three witnesses that House impeachment "managers" insist are the bare minimum they need to make their case.

    In so doing, Feingold later explained in a written statement, he was not suggesting that he will ultimately vote to remove Clinton from office. He has made no such decision, he insisted. But to dismiss the case at this stage, Feingold said, "would in appearance and in fact improperly 'short-circuit' this trial" before the House had a chance to make its case.

    And "because I have decided that the House managers probably must be held to the highest standard of proof – beyond a reasonable doubt – I believe that they should have every reasonable opportunity to meet that standard and prove their case" by deposing a limited number of witnesses, Feingold said.

    That Feingold turned out to be a dissenter did not come as a complete surprise to his Senate Democratic colleagues or his constituents back home. In six years in the Senate, the 45-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer and onetime Rhodes Scholar has gained a reputation as a maverick who is willing to sail against the political winds, most notably in his crusade with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to overhaul the campaign finance system.

    But in initially siding with the Republicans in the high-stakes battle over the survival of a Democratic president, Feingold appeared to have provoked a political storm among the party faithful back home in Wisconsin.

    "We're getting a lot of very upset people calling," said Terri Spring, the chairwoman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "Elderly people crying, other people yelling."

    Spring said Wisconsin Democrats were most upset that Feingold did not vote to stop the impeachment trial in its tracks. "People are just so anxious for this to come to a close and put it behind us," she said. "All this is doing is prolonging the agony the country is going through. This was the first hope in the Senate of putting it behind us. They're just mad as hell."

    Spring also said that Feingold was aware of the unease about his vote among Democrats back home and that she relayed such messages of concern to his Washington office. "People were getting very jittery about it," she said.

    "Russ is a very independent type of senator," Spring added. "It's about process for him. Russ is known for voting his conscience, for his independent streak."

    In the days leading up to yesterday's votes, Feingold and Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) were considered the two Democrats most likely to defect. The Wisconsin Democrat has teamed up with Maine Republican Susan Collins on several parliamentary maneuvers in recent days, suggesting his interest in exploring more carefully the allegations that Clinton obstructed justice.

    In the end, Graham stayed within the party fold, issuing a brief statement saying that the case against Clinton did not meet "the high standards required by the Constitution for removal" of the president and that "the Senate and the American people have had ample opportunity to review the charges against the president."

    Feingold's fellow Senate Democrats said he had informed them of his concernsabout dismissing the case and not deposing witnesses. "Russ is an original thinker who really grapples with the issues and he was grappling, I know, until the very end," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

    But the Democrats also dismissed placing any importance on the lone Democratic dissent. "Forty-four people say this is over," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

    What the political repercussions of yesterday's votes will be for Feingold remains unclear. He has the luxury of having just started a second six-year term, enough time for Democratic anger to fade, especially if in the end he votes to acquit Clinton.

    His reelection in November came after a hard-fought campaign made even more difficult by Feingold's refusal to accept the kind of "soft money" party expenditures that he and McCain are seeking to ban. When Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and other Democrats wanted to pump $425,000 worth of "issue" ads into the state to boost the struggling Democrat, Feingold confirmed his stubborn independent streak, telling the national Democrats to "get the hell out of my state with those things."

    Special correspondent Chris Carr contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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