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Acquittal Nears Majority in Friday's Vote

Senators Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) return to the Senate Thursday to resume deliberations. (AP)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A1

    Secret deliberations in President Clinton's impeachment trial wound toward a finish yesterday, as a fourth Republican announced plans to reject both articles, pushing conviction supporters within a single vote of failing to win even a simple majority against the president when the Senate casts its votes today.

    While describing Clinton's conduct as "deplorable and indefensible," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said she became convinced that "the president's wrongdoing can and should be effectively addressed by the criminal justice system" rather than removal from office.

    Senators of both parties last night predicted another moderate Republican from Maine, Susan M. Collins, might also vote against the charge that Clinton obstructed justice; Collins did speak during the secret deliberations yesterday, but her office did not confirm her intentions.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he hoped the Senate would take a final vote on the articles by 11 a.m. or noon this morning. While it's been clear for weeks that the Senate will not muster the two-thirds majority needed to oust Clinton from office, the only lingering questions are what will be the final tally and how that will be interpreted by history. Democrats also intend to mount a last-ditch effort to offer a resolution censuring the president, but that appears likely to fail, senators said.

    The Senate deliberated for a second day yesterday, starting at around 10 a.m. and going until shortly after 7 p.m., with a break only for lunch. Behind closed doors, about 30 members of both parties offered colleagues their views on the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, while a steady stream of senators held press conferences or released public statements explaining how they would vote.

    Virtually all the statements, even from Democrats, condemned Clinton's behavior in the scandal with language like "disgraceful" and "reprehensible," though the two parties parted company on the proper punishment; Democrats said the president should remain in office, while most Republicans affirmed conviction as a just result.

    By the end of the day, senators said, there were only three or four senators left to speak, including Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), viewed as the leading exponent of Senate traditions and procedures.

    Even before Snowe's announcement yesterday, enthusiasm for the first impeachment article alleging perjury in Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony had clearly waned to the point where it will almost certainly not win 50 votes.

    Snowe's statement that she would oppose both articles meant that four Republicans are now on record opposing the second article, alleging obstruction of justice in Clinton's efforts to conceal his sexual involvement with Monica S. Lewinsky. The others -- Arlen Specter (Pa.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.) and John H. Chafee (R.I.) -- announced their opposition Wednesday.

    If the vote breaks strictly along party lines, the obstruction article could still gain as many as 51 votes -- if Collins votes to convict. Another Republican, Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), has given little clue how he will vote. The only question mark in the Democratic camp was Byrd, who has not said categorically that he will vote against both articles.

    According to Lott spokesman John Czwartacki, the chamber will be opened at the conclusion of the debate and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will read the first article and the clerk will call the roll as senators stand one by one to vote guilty or not guilty, or present. The second article will follow.

    When the voting finishes, a copy of the judgment will be sent to the office of the secretary of state, probably hand-delivered by the secretary of the Senate. After further formalities, the Senate would formally adjourn the trial.

    Democrats have said that, after the Senate returns to regular legislative session, they will make a parliamentary move aimed at forcing a vote on their resolution to censure Clinton, but Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), one of the GOP's few censure supporters, said it would fail. More likely, Democrats say, is the inclusion in the Congressional Record of a statement rebuking Clinton for his conduct.

    With the verdict all but in hand, White House aides were happy to make reasonably positive judgments on the Senate's labors, praising it in comparison with a House debate they dismissed as excessively partisan.

    "There have been days in this process where we've had some grievance with a turn in events one way or the other," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "But . . . there has been a vast difference."

    Clinton has said he plans to address the nation tomorrow after the end of the trial, but officials have said there will not be a repeat of what some senators of both parties have called a partisan celebration that occurred when the House impeached Clinton in December.

    Asked what he wanted to hear from Clinton today, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) replied: "As little as possible."

    For 100 senators meeting in secret for three days, the only view shared by everyone appeared to be disgust with Clinton's behavior. But regardless of his offenses, Democrats said, Clinton should not be removed from office, while all but a handful of Republicans said the case has been proven and the president must go.

    Still, beneath the sometimes heated rhetoric, the statements and speeches of more than two dozen senators showed a surprising range. Both sides in many cases showed considerable thoughtfulness and took obvious care to make a clear statement -- whether to their colleagues, their constituents or to history.

    "The views are far afield, from the specifics of the evidence to overarching issues about the future of America," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who said he would vote to acquit. "Each person has his own or her own spin on it."

    By the end of the day, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among their party's strongest Clinton critics, had fallen into line with their party colleagues.

    "No matter how deeply disappointed I am that our president, who has worked so successfully to lift up the lives of so many people, so lowered himself and his office, I conclude that his wrongdoing in this sordid saga does not justify making him the first president to be ousted from office in our history," Lieberman said.

    Feinstein criticized Clinton's conduct as "deplorable" but argued that the charges remained unproven. The House impeachment was "flawed" and "partisan," she said, criticizing the House's pretrial release of evidence, failure to call witnesses, "vague" drafting of the articles and what she described as denial of the Democratic minority's rights.

    There had also been some suspense over how Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) would vote in light of his earlier expression of interest in censure, but he too echoed the majority of his GOP colleagues.

    "In the end, the facts, stubborn facts, kept getting in the way," Smith said. They "led me to the logical, inescapable conclusion that what began as private indiscretions became public felonies."

    Moreover, he said, he would vote guilty "because I refuse to say that high political polls and soaring Wall Street indexes give license to those in high places to act in low and illegal ways."

    Bennett of Utah said he had previously decided to vote against the perjury article but changed his mind as the trial proceeded. "A president who has demonstrated a capacity to lie about anything, great or small, whether or not under oath, does threaten our liberties," he said. "We will always be fearful of where that trait of his could take, and we should be."

    For many senators, the closing speeches were an opportunity to comment on the state of politics in America, to discuss the history of the nation and its Constitution, and even to reflect on their upbringing and intellectual growth.

    Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) recalled first learning about the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence as a small boy, at the knee of his father, a lawyer. The House managers, Levin said, simply failed to make their case.

    Their arguments "repeatedly rely on inferences while ignoring direct testimony to the contrary," said Levin, a lawyer himself. "They omit key materials which contradict their charges. And they contain serious misstatements of key facts."

    Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) discussed the "balance of powers" as defined by the framers of the Constitution. Along with his speech, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) submitted a 44-page analysis entitled "Procedural and Factual Insufficiencies in the Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton," complete with outline and end notes. Both said they would vote to acquit.

    Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) composed his statement in support of both articles while seated "at my desk on the floor of the United States Senate," musing "how can the rule of law for every American be applied equally if we have two standards of justice in America -- one for the powerful and the other for the rest of us?"

    And Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) confessed his conflicted feelings, even after deciding to oppose the articles. "We risk opening the floodgates to more party-line impeachments if we oust a president from office for behavior that -- while truly deplorable -- isn't truly removable," he said. "I state these conclusions with a certainty I do not feel."

    Conflicted feelings clearly motivated the Republicans who broke with party orthodoxy to join in acquitting Clinton of one or both charges. Jeffords said he agreed with Democrats that neither offense met an impeachable standard, but "I hope that the president does not come away from this trial thinking that he is forgiven, or that what he has done is not serious, because I think it was most serious."

    Chafee was "filled with admiration" for the House managers' performance, he said in one breath, then began pointing out that circumstantial evidence in their case was "rebutted by direct evidence or by confusion that leaves us saying, 'this is very murky.' "

    But while Specter chastised the House for politicizing the trial, he also voiced sympathy for the managers, limited by Senate rules in deposing witnesses and prevented from questioning Lewinsky, the star witness, on the Senate floor.

    "There has been no 'trial' but only a 'pseudo-trial' or a 'sham trial,' " Specter wrote in a long, rambling discourse that was part legal brief, part legal tract. "The best the managers could do was to cut, paste and glue together transcripts from the independent counsel's grand jury proceedings."

    For the finest advocates on either side, the secret deliberations were clearly a dialogue of the deaf, but Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) noted that "people 50, 100, 150 years from now will look at why we did this -- it will be worth reading."

    Perhaps one of the most eloquent cases for impeachment was made by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), an ordinarily temperate man who used cutting language to denounce Clinton, concluding "not only that he is guilty of both articles" but that "he is not trustworthy" to lead the nation either domestically or internationally.

    "I believe the crimes committed here demonstrate that he is capable of lying routinely whenever it is convenient," Lugar said. "With premeditation, he chose his own gratification above the security of his country and the success of his presidency. Then he chose to compound the damage by systematically lying about it over a span of many months."

    On the Democratic side, the talkative Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) took a thoughtful tone, decrying the ability of conservative groups to insinuate what he termed a bogus case into the House by exploiting the willingness of both political parties to "criminalize or at least dishonor our adversaries."

    "What is so profoundly disturbing is not that this small group of Clinton-haters hatched this plan," Schumer said. "It's that this group -- or any group equally dogmatic and cunning -- came so close to succeeding."

    Staff writers Peter Baker, Helen Dewar, Dan Morgan and Ed Walsh contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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