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Looking Over the Senate's Shoulder

Sheila Jackson Lee Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee follows this week's Senate trial proceedings. (AFP)

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 22, 1999; Page C1

    She is there every day, sitting in the back, scribbling furiously, the most prodigious note-taker at the trial of the century.

    She is not prosecuting the case against William Jefferson Clinton, or defending the man (at least not formally), or sitting in judgment of him. She is not a Senate staffer, not a stenographer, not a person burdened by official duties.

    She is just there. Watching, listening, recording.

    At a glance, the Senate floor each day looks like a solemn repository of aging, graying white men with folded arms and ruffled brows and insipid faces that convey this: Don't wanna be here. And then there's this striking black woman in the back who wears her hair in a crown, who's vigorously engaged, who comes each day with the Congressional Record and a yellow legal pad and a gray composition book that is filling up fast. She jots down notes with such speed and focus you'd think she'd been asked to take dictation.

    And so you wonder what Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is doing exactly. Why is this House Judiciary Committee Democrat, who had her shot and lost, on the other side of the Capitol playing secretary at President Clinton's impeachment trial?

    "I wanted to be in this chamber as a reminder of those silent voices," says Jackson Lee, whose own voice is crisply poetic. By silent voices, she means those who feel as she does: that Clinton doesn't deserve to be on trial, that independent counsel Ken Starr didn't make the case for impeachment, that House Republicans didn't weigh the evidence fairly.

    "So I'm sort of on a work assignment," she says during a break. "People ask questions." They ask questions at restaurants. They ask questions at airport ticket counters. Sometimes spontaneous debates break out in these public spaces as they did in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.

    "Americans are more interested in this than one might have expected," says Jackson Lee. "You get queried wherever you go. So if I can help edify it . . ."

    By edify, she means to act as a counterweight to her Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, now called "managers," who have completed their prosecutory presentation in the Senate and are now issuing daily press releases to rebut Clinton's defense.

    "A truth teller," she calls herself, and one who takes copious notes, because copious notes allow one to "speak with more acuteness."

    And what exactly is she scrawling?

    "My method is running the memory bank of the Judiciary Committee proceedings with what I'm seeing," she explains. So she logs everything she hears on the floor from both sides of the case, circles certain points, makes notations where she finds conflicts between the House and Senate meetings.

    In other words, serious work.

    Is she sharing her observations with the jurors?

    Mostly, her conversations with senators have been informal and confined to "exchanging pleasantries," she says.

    Has she offered the White House any advice?

    "Put forth your best case," she told Clinton's defense team.

    Her presence is not about trying to influence the trial's participants, she says.

    "I guess I'm back to my law school days," she explains.

    That would be back to 1975, when Jackson Lee, now 49, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School. Later she worked as a staff counsel on Capitol Hill, practiced law in Houston, was a municipal judge in Houston, served two terms on the Houston City Council and was elected to Congress from Houston's 18th District in 1994.

    She's a native New Yorker.

    Her congressional seat is the same one once held by Barbara Jordan and then Mickey Leland, so she is trying to fill some big boots. The impeachment process gave her a forum, which she didn't hesitate to use, which she is still using.

    "I still have a voice," she says.

    So she speaks out. She appears on TV talk shows. She agrees to be interviewed by the scribes. She is the same Sheila Jackson Lee, only now she has the Senate perspective without being a senator.

    The National Journal labeled Jackson Lee and Republican Judiciary Committee member Charles Canady of Florida "The Opportunists" for their eagerness to step before the microphones. Some of her Republican friends have said worse about her. They see her, in all her constitutionally cloaked rhetoric, as part of a blindly loyal Clinton cabal. That cabal would be "the Franks, the Nadlers, the Jackson Lees, the Waterses and the Wexlers," says Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the No. 2-ranking Republican on Judiciary. These Democrats, Sensenbrenner told the Milwaukee Journal, are practitioners of "shrill partisanship."

    But never mind that right now.

    Jackson Lee is at the trial of the century, usually sitting in a brown leather chair behind Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who looks like a Blues Brother because of eye surgery that has forced him to don sunglasses.

    So if you're in the Senate chamber you notice Hollings and then you notice her. It's a primo seat. Others have taken advantage of the courtesy the Senate has bestowed upon its House brethren. Tom Barrett (D-Wis.) has stopped by. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) dropped in for a look. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) was there the other day. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), on crutches from hip replacement surgery, hobbled over for a peek.

    But none of them has been as diligent as Jackson Lee, with her perfect attendance and perfect classroom habits. The rest of them don't come with even a sheet of paper. They just sit and observe, there to absorb a few minutes of history.

    Jackson Lee, on the other hand, gets so aroused at times that she is tempted to rise and speak, which of course would be against Senate rules and would get her tossed. "Am I raring to object? Yes, I am."

    How peculiar this all seems. But maybe it isn't.

    "She has a total invitation to be there," says Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), who is one of the House prosecutors and sees her every day. "I don't think it's odd. She is an intense person. She has spoken intensely about this."

    "I'm not on a crusade," Jackson Lee explains, "and I don't want people to think I'm obsessed with this. I just wanted to see if coming over here, there would be this great leap into things I hadn't seen. Would the House managers be able to make the case they hadn't made in the House?"

    And?

    "The managers' case was wrong in the House and it has not been made in the Senate. The rightness of our case has been made clearer."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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