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Three Republican Senators Reject Articles

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) during a news conference Wednesday, where he said he would not vote to convict the president. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page A1

    Three Republican senators declared yesterday that they will vote against convicting President Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors, becoming the first to break party lines as closed-door deliberations in the impeachment trial stretched through a second day and the drive for a bipartisan censure resolution appeared to fizzle.

    A trio of Northeastern moderates, Sens. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and John H. Chafee (R.I.), announced that they will reject both articles of impeachment during final votes that could come late today or tomorrow. Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) plan to oppose the perjury article while voting to convict Clinton of obstruction of justice.

    "Our founding fathers clearly intended impeachment for only the greatest offenses," Jeffords said. "The facts and circumstances of this case are low and tawdry, but these same circumstances do not, in my opinion, cause his offenses to rise to the level of impeachable acts."

    With Democratic solidarity already appearing to ensure acquittal, the defections of the three Republicans suggested that one or perhaps both articles will not garner a majority, let alone the two-thirds vote required for removal. Jeffords predicted that a half-dozen Republicans may support complete acquittal, which would guarantee more than 50 votes to keep Clinton in office if all 45 Democrats stick together.

    Jeffords and his colleagues made their public announcements in news releases or television appearances outside the Senate chamber, where the doors remained shut and the public excluded as senators delivered a series of monologues over the course of eight hours. In their first two days of deliberation, according to senators, 56 had spoken or submitted statements, with no Democrats bolting, including Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), the only party member to oppose dismissing the case last month.

    Although immaterial under the Constitution, the failure of House Republican prosecutors to achieve a simple majority could become a potent political weapon for Clinton and his allies as they try to shape the legacy of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and the historic impeachment trial it spawned. Democrats would characterize such a result as vindication of their contention that the entire process has been an illegitimate, partisan abuse of power. With that in mind, some Republicans hoped to rally their party brethren to muster a majority for the obstruction article.

    "The big question is whether obstruction will get 50," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Perjury will not and obstruction is neck-and-neck." If both fall short, "not having a majority on either count probably shows that we should never have done this in the first place."

    Republicans tried to sketch out a different interpretation for the likely outcome, suggesting the issue for senators was not whether Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice to cover up his affair with Lewinsky but whether he should be the first president ever evicted from office for doing so.

    "We've come to the point many of us hoped we would never reach: The evidence shows that the president has committed perjury and obstructed justice," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "The only question left is: Will the Senate vote to find him guilty of committing these high crimes?"

    The other question left was whether the Senate would find another vehicle to express disapproval of Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky case following the anticipated acquittal. In the face of procedural roadblocks and conservative opposition, supporters of a Democratic-led effort to censure Clinton all but conceded they would be stymied and began looking for a fallback plan.

    The latest thought was a letter to the president chastising him for wrongdoing, signed by as many senators as sponsors could find. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is leading the censure drive, said she will try to force a vote before the Senate recesses tomorrow. But if it fails, she said, she may turn the resolution into a statement and seek signatures for it. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said "we're not kidding ourselves" about the chances of a formal censure and predicted at least 50 signatures could be obtained for the unofficial statement.

    While most Democrats support censure, many Republicans oppose it, deeming it constitutionally suspect, a dangerous precedent and mere political cover for Democrats who will vote to acquit Clinton. But other Republicans have grown increasingly sympathetic to the idea because they do not want to see the GOP stand in the way of action rebuking the president and affirming, even indirectly, the validity of the allegations brought against him by the House.

    "I'm one of a minority [among Republicans] who feels it has some value," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), chairman of the Senate GOP campaign committee. "What has not been focused on is that there is something there for Republicans too," including "validation" of what the House Republicans did, he added.

    The White House repeated yesterday that Clinton would be receptive to censure, but he was hardly going out of his way to lobby for it. "The president has said he would be open to some censure," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "He understands the wrongful nature of his behavior. But it is up to the Senate to make decisions on censure whether they want to do it, how they want to do it, what the censure would be."

    Other Clinton supporters were not waiting for the final votes to begin fomenting an anti-impeachment backlash. People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, announced a $5 million campaign to unseat Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach the president, naming 68 House members who did "the bidding of the party's highly vocal and organized far right faction" as their initial targets.

    During yesterday's secret deliberations in the Clinton trial, which began at 10 a.m. and with an hour-long lunch break lasted until about 6:15 p.m., senators again engaged in speeches rather than much dialogue, many of them taking the full 15 minutes permitted under the rules, according to participants.

    While Lott hoped to wrap up deliberations today for a 5 p.m. vote, there were conflicting predictions about whether that would happen or whether final decisions would be put off until tomorrow.

    Outside the chamber, Jeffords was the first Republican to say he will vote against both articles, saying he was "gravely concerned" that conviction might "establish a low threshold that would make every president subject to removal for the slightest indiscretion or that a vote to convict may imperil every president who faces a Congress controlled by the opposing party."

    But Jeffords also made clear he found serious fault with Clinton's conduct and insisted the president should not believe he is "forgiven" following the trial. "I do not want the people of this nation to think that a vote of acquittal means that the president's conduct is acceptable, because it is not acceptable," Jeffords said.

    Specter later called a news conference to announce that he would not vote to convict Clinton but did not want to be recorded as voting for acquittal. Instead, he opted for a third choice nowhere in the trial rules "not proven," which he said had precedent in Scottish law.

    "The president has dodged perjury by calculated evasion and poor interrogation," Specter said in a 27-page statement summing up his views. "Obstruction of justice fails by gaps in the proofs."

    Yet he also excoriated the Senate proceedings, calling them a "sham trial" because of restrictions on House prosecutors. If the Senate had heard live witnesses "instead of bits and pieces of cold transcript," he said, "it is possible the Senate and the American people would have demanded the president's appearance in the well of the Senate." Had he "displayed the egregious character described harshly by his defenders in their proposed censure petitions . . . that sequence might have led to his removal."

    Chafee denounced the president's "reckless, tawdry behavior" and "misleading statements that undermined the dignity of the presidency," but said they did not justify his removal. The obstruction article, he noted, was complicated by "circumstantial evidence rebutted by direct evidence or confusion," leaving only a "murky" record.

    Other senators from both parties announced votes that remained within party lines.

    A parade of Democrats affirmed that they plan to reject both articles, including Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (N.J.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Paul D. Wellstone (Iowa), Carl Levin (Mich.), Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii).

    Clinton's "shameful behavior,"" said Lautenberg, "did not threaten our constitutional system." The president's conduct was "wrong, reckless and indefensible," echoed Kohl, but "does not justify removal." Some Democrats focused their statements on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's conduct rather than Clinton's. Harkin called him an "out-of-control" prosecutor who entrapped the president and made a "totally counterfeit case."

    But Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said he will support conviction because Clinton has demonstrated that "he is capable of lying routinely whenever it is convenient." In a searing statement, Lugar said, "Simply to be near him in the White House has meant not only tragic heartache for his wife and his daughter but enormous legal bills for staff members and friends who admired him and yearned for his success but who have been caught up in his incessant 'war room' strategies to maintain him in office."

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

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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