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Clinton Fate Is Debated in Private

Senators Wellstone Harkin Democratic Sens. Paul Wellstone (Minn.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) speak to the press about the impeachment trial. (Gerald Martineau — The Post)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page A1

    The Senate cleared its galleries and closed its doors yesterday to begin private deliberations on the fate of President Clinton, voting to do so even though there appeared to be no secret about the ultimate outcome of the impeachment trial that has dominated Capitol Hill for the last month.

    With acquittal seemingly guaranteed by a Democratic caucus standing behind its president, senators sought to determine whether even a simple majority will vote for conviction, much less the two-thirds required for removal, and whether the two parties will put aside their differences once the trial is over to condemn Clinton's behavior.

    Such a bipartisan resolution censuring the president's attempts to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky remained elusive yesterday. While several Republicans indicated new interest in the concept, a Senate GOP leader suggested censure's prospects were fading fast – "a rose beginning to wilt" – and Democrats worried that they would not be able to overcome procedural obstacles to force a vote before a week-long recess starts this weekend.

    The first 4 hours and 15 minutes of deliberations yesterday afternoon were described afterward as collegial, if occasionally tense – mostly a series of speeches from about 18 senators, with a few moments of give-and-take. Allotted just 15 minutes apiece, three or four senators went on long enough to prompt the presiding officer, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, to rap his gavel.

    "There was passion. There were thoughtful presentations. There was analytical material. There was historical material. There was a range of approaches," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

    "A few times you could feel pressure rising," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). The session, added Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), was marked by "a wide chasm separating viewpoints."

    To make what many have called the most important decision of their careers, the senators ordered the television cameras turned off and spectators, prosecutors, defense lawyers and reporters removed from the chamber shortly before 2 p.m. in keeping with rules established in 1868 for the only other presidential impeachment trial, when Andrew Johnson was acquitted by a single vote.

    Although the Senate voted 59 to 41 to open the debate, it fell eight votes short of the two-thirds required to suspend the secrecy rules. Fourteen Republicans joined all 45 Democrats in supporting public deliberations. Later, openness advocates achieved an agreement to let individual senators insert written transcripts of their own remarks during the closed session into the Congressional Record after the trial ends this week.

    "However clubby we may think it is, [the Senate] is not a private club," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who led the charge to conduct the debate in public, complained at a news conference after the vote. "There's no legitimate reason for why those doors are closed."

    "I think the deliberations should be in closed session, as all juries in this country are," Craig said shortly before the vote. "I think they would not be deliberations otherwise, and they should not be called deliberations. They should be called final statements or final speeches or political statements."

    While the historic debate takes place outside public view, the doors will reopen for the final votes on the two articles of impeachment alleging that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice, most likely tomorrow. Senators anticipate another full day of debate today starting at 10 a.m., possibly trailing into tomorrow before the votes.

    Under the mathematics of impeachment, Democrats alone can rescue their president from removal. Forty-four of them already have voted to dismiss the case on a motion defeated by the Republican majority, or 10 more than necessary to block conviction. Their confidence on the rise, some Democrats have begun predicting that enough Senate Republicans will join them so that neither article of impeachment musters even 51 votes.

    With the main drama seemingly settled, senators and others involved in the proceedings sparred over various ancillary issues, such as whether Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal lied during his Senate deposition last week and whether the White House maintains a secret taping system.

    Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked his colleagues yesterday to conduct another deposition of Blumenthal as well as interviews with three writers to determine whether the White House adviser committed "possible fraud on the Senate." Two of the writers have signed affidavits saying Blumenthal portrayed Lewinsky as a "stalker" to them last March, even though he testified last week that he never related to friends or journalists his conversation with Clinton in which the president used that description.

    Blumenthal has denied lying in last week's deposition and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) blocked Specter's request.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) separately sent a hand-delivered letter to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday afternoon asking him to investigate whether the White House has an undisclosed taping system such as the one that led to President Richard M. Nixon's downfall.

    The one-paragraph letter, written at the behest of Senate Republicans, was not released but cited unconfirmed speculation in recent news accounts, according to Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. He said Republicans thought it was "unfair to let it hang out" without investigation and resolution, lest it provide fodder for future conspiracy theorists.

    The White House has repeatedly denied any such taping system. While the president's now-rare telephone interviews with journalists are recorded so they can be transcribed, aides said they were unaware that any other conversations were taped. "It's urban impeachment myth," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy. "We're in full X-Files land here."

    The beginning of deliberations yesterday finally freed senators from the shackles of silence that have bound them in their own chamber through more than a month of arguments by House managers and White House defense lawyers. For the first time, they were to debate the merits of the case in a formal setting, rather than on the sets of "Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press."

    Fearing the pent-up demand for floor time, Lott implored colleagues not to use their full 15 minutes each in an effort to speed up the trial's end. "I remind all senators that Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address in less than three minutes," he said. "And Kennedy's first inaugural was slightly over seven minutes."

    But few senators yesterday chose to give up their time. Speaking from a lectern in the well of the chamber, senators alternated by party, with Democrats rising in order of seniority and Republicans putting their names on a sign-up sheet. Some spoke from notes, others from prepared texts. In addition to the scripted speeches, senators described a few instances when colleagues questioned each other.

    "At this point senators are taking it pretty seriously," said Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). "This is the moment of truth."

    "It's very honest and open," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). "People are doing a good job," added Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.). "It's not a give-and-take process. People are laying out their positions."

    Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) spoke first in the closed session, followed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). It concluded with speeches by Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). Although he is the most senior Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has expressed anguish about the decision he faces, gave up his early speaking rights and let others go first. Neither Lott nor Daschle spoke either.

    Several said censure did not come up, but Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), for one, figured it would by tomorrow. Some senators suggested the closing of the session would allow more comfortable environment to work out a compromise on the issue.

    A proposed censure resolution picked up a third Republican co-sponsor yesterday as Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) joined Robert F. Bennett (Utah) and John H. Chafee (R.I.) in supporting a resolution drafted with the help of Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). A Snowe spokesman said she was won over by an agreement to include language expressing hope that the censure not be rescinded by a future Congress and urging that Clinton be treated like any other citizen if prosecuted after leaving office.

    In other hopeful signs for censure, Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) suggested that he believes censure is "still an open question" within the GOP caucus, while Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he is reconsidering his earlier opposition. "If it were strong enough and substantially bipartisan, I would be more inclined to support it," he said.

    But Craig, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said time is running out for censure. If put off until after the recess, as appears possible, he said, "I don't think the Senate would want to deal with this issue again."

    Democrats plotting maneuvers to force a vote were likewise pessimistic, given vows by Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) to try to block action on censure. "It's going to be very difficult to get it to the Senate floor in light of Republican opposition," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), "and that may doom it forever."

    Staff writers Guy Gugliotta, Dan Morgan, Eric Pianin and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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