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Harkin Objects to Get Point Across

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, accompanied by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. (AP File Photo)

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  • By Steve Twomey
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A10

    Matters had just gotten started when they stopped. Out through the double doors of the Senate chamber came Christopher S. Bond, a Republican from Missouri, and with him came a short explanation of what was holding up yesterday's session of the trial of the president.

    "Apparently," Bond said with a hint of bemusement, "Senator Harkin's delaying again."

    Tom Harkin, a three-term Iowa Democrat of liberal sentiments, has become objector-in-chief in the historic proceedings unfolding in the Senate, offering both blunt denunciations of the charges and motions that would thwart Republican wishes.

    It was Harkin who raised the trial's first formal objection, asking Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to tell House prosecutors to stop describing senators as "jurors," a term Harkin felt failed to reflect their additional role as judges. Rehnquist agreed.

    It was Harkin who, along with Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), proposed that the Senate lift its traditional veil of secrecy in impeachment trials. Instead of debating motions and evidence in closed sessions, emerging only to cast final votes, they argued that the Senate should conduct all deliberations connected with President Clinton in full view. Voters have a right to know not only the outcome of such a pivotal undertaking in the nation's history, Harkin and Wellstone said, but also how the Senate reached it. They lost that argument yesterday.

    It was Harkin, too, who on Saturday tried to hand Rehnquist a letter asking him to stop the House managers from interviewing Monica S. Lewinsky. He ended up giving the letter to a court aide, and yesterday Rehnquist rejected Harkin's argument that only the Senate has the power to set the pace and procedure of a trial.

    Harkin makes no secret of his disdain for the House's vote to impeach a man he dueled for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. He has called it "perhaps one of the most blatant, political, vindictive acts the House of Representatives has ever taken" and argued that although the president's character flaws and marital faithfulness might well be the "stuff of the stump," they are "not the stuff of impeachment."

    But he has insisted he can still be impartial in considering the case against Clinton, as required by the oath all senators took at the beginning of the trial. He said in a telephone interview yesterday that his various motions weren't intended to damage the Republican case. There is, he said, no obvious benefit for the president in insisting that senators not be called jurors or that proceedings be open. His goal, he said, is to ensure that the trial takes place in conditions that reflect its importance.

    "I think I'm the chief defender of the Senate's unique role," he said.

    Chief defender was not an assignment he planned or was given by the Democratic leadership, he said, but one that evolved from his study of impeachment rules and history. After the trial began, he became concerned that some senators are treating it as just "another session of the Senate," Harkin said, and gradually "it kind of became clear that there could be some mischief done, unless someone was guarding those rules."

    Phil Roeder, a Democratic loyalist in Iowa who worked on two Harkin campaigns, said yesterday the senator's floor motions didn't surprise him. "It's consistent for him to use whatever means necessary to fight [for] what he believes is right, whether it's the rules of the Senate or other types of forums," Roeder said. "He's willing to go out on a branch to do what he wants to do, no matter whether anyone's following him at the time."

    Roeder added: "There's not always a clear line between doing the right thing and being partisan. I think this is certainly a case where if two hats fit at the same time, why not wear them?"

    The chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Roxanne Conlin, who has known Harkin since 1972, acknowledged that all politicians consider themselves independent thinkers and actors, but Harkin "truly does what he thinks is right."

    One of Harkin's roles in the trial was more obviously partisan than others, however. He sought out his close friend, former Democratic senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, to urge him to help the White House defense team with the presentation of its case, which Bumpers did in a rousing speech.

    "Well, sure, that's not process or procedure," Harkin said, adding that he felt his colleagues needed to hear from someone who had a connection to them, unlike the House prosecutors or the White House lawyers.

    And he might not be done making motions. He has not given up on his effort to have a ruling on the legality of the House prosecutors meeting with Lewinsky without the permission of the Senate. "I was going to bring it up today," he said, "but I don't think I can today. But I may at some point ask for a clarification."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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