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Protecting Propriety in the Club

Connie Mack Sens. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) watch the press conference following the Senate bipartisan impeachment caucus. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 9, 1999; Page A10

    The Club convened for a rare closed-door meeting. In the old clubhouse.

    The 100 senators met yesterday morning in the Old Senate Chamber, the chamber of Webster, Clay, Calhoun and Sumner. They walked on stars woven into the rich carpet to take their seats under the fierce gaze of a looming bronze eagle. A huge chandelier hung from a coffered barrel ceiling, casting its light on the deeply burnished wood of each handmade desk.

    Impeachment of the president was threatening to drive a wedge through The Club, so this extraordinary meeting was imperative. The Club must never appear adrift. It must not be seen to be petty. Human passions -- greed, advantage, revenge -- must be risen above.

    To the outside world, club members may be known primarily as Republicans and Democrats. But as important as the thing that divides them is the thing they have in common. The Club. They are senators.

    Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who likes to speak of the Senate as the morning and evening stars of our great constitutional system, delivered the opening statement in the old clubhouse. Byrd's tone ran, as always, somewhere between "lofty" and "empyrean."

    Members then spoke of good faith and sincerity and, above all, the Senate. The glue that holds The Club together is trust, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said later, and so they tried to get the trust flowing again.

    How did they do it? Ultimately, they fell back on the thing the Senate does best. They struck the classic Washington compromise. In speeches by Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- a righty and a lefty, sure, but between them they have more than 50 years in The Club -- the two sides identified everything they could agree on. They wrote that up, went into official session and passed it unanimously.

    The thing they could not agree on -- whether to allow witnesses in the impeachment trial -- this little matter was identified as the source of all the trouble, all the furrowed brows and canceled meetings. So it was put aside for another day. Maybe it will fix itself.

    "Today, we have acted in the very best tradition of the Senate," Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said afterward.

    Members of the House of Representatives like to talk about their close ties to ordinary Americans and the populism of "the people's House." When they mention the Senate, they try to summon a Woody Guthrie kind of disdain for the elitists on the Capitol's north end with their fancy diction and their White House dreams. "Over there on Mount Olympus," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said of the Senate recently.

    But year after year, people quit the House and fight the hardest campaigns of their lives to enter The Club. One look at Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who left the House and joined The Club just this week, and you could see the entire story. He has been wearing the smile and walking with the springy step of a kid who just made the varsity.

    Or consider the case of the late Claude Pepper, the Florida Democrat who served a term in the Senate half a century ago, lost his seat, then was elected to the House for a distinguished and powerful reign of more than 30 years. To the last day of his life, he had his aides instruct callers to address him as "Senator Pepper."

    No outsiders could see what transpired behind the closed doors of the Old Senate Chamber yesterday. But there was every reason to believe the events went gravely and harmoniously, just as the proud senators reported afterward. They are, after all, accustomed to working together.

    Part of it is the filibuster. A single senator has the power to freeze the entire body in its tracks, so everyone is accommodated.

    Part of it is the recent history of the place. In 1980 (practically yesterday in Senate terms) Republicans won the majority from the Democrats, who won it back six years later. The Republicans turned the tables again in 1994. Byrd loves to compare The Club to the Roman Senate of antiquity, but in this way it resembles more contemporary Italian government -- one day you're up, the next day you're down, so it's best to be careful about making enemies.

    Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) says the real root of the senatorial calm is much simpler: The Republicans had the votes to impeach in the House so they bulled ahead and did it. They don't have the votes to convict in the Senate, so they have become the soul of compromise.

    Still, The Club is different. During a recess in Thursday's impeachment proceedings, Lott stood with his counterpart from the Democrats, Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota. They began discussing thorny issues between them and were joined by the likes of Tennessee's Fred D. Thompson and Washington's Slade Gorton (both Republicans) and Connecticut's Joseph I. Lieberman and Michigan's Carl M. Levin (both Democrats).

    Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana joined the huddle beside Republican Gramm of Texas. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) leaned in from one side and John McCain (R-Ariz.) stepped up beside him. The conversation went purposefully and amiably. Members listened politely to one another.

    Nearby, Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah sat chatting with Byrd, while Democrat Biden shared a word with Republican Connie Mack of Florida.

    There's a message here: Impeachment might divide the American public. But if they can help it, it will never split up The Club.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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