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Senators' Exits Not Clearly Marked

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A10

    Remember the sober, somber Senate? Yesterday, it wasn't.

    The session that was supposed to begin at 1 p.m. did not get under way until 2, and even then there was only one Democrat on the floor.

    So Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) did what the Senate always does when things become untidy. He asked for a "quorum call." For the next 20 minutes, the clerk read the roll, trying to figure out who was there and who wasn't. Gradually the Democrats sauntered in.

    They had been sealed into Room 211 of the Capitol where, after much talk, they agreed to a plan for the conduct of the day's business. Their return, Lott evidently believed, meant all systems were go. Exuding confidence, he rose and began describing the plan.

    "I object!" Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called out from the back row. Lott looked a bit bemused. Harkin has been the Senate's squeaky wheel for the past two weeks.

    Time for another quorum call.

    On the floor, senators clustered in small groups for friendly, bipartisan discussions. One thing about the Senate: The fights don't seem to get personal. The central cluster – also the largest – surrounded Lott, Harkin and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). Reporters peered down from the gallery at the gesturing senators and wished they could read lips.

    Eventually everything was back on track. Lott again lifted his microphone.

    "I object!" This time it was Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).

    Now Lott looked bewildered. Quorum call.

    "What on Earth is going on?" asked a woman in the visitors' gallery.

    More small group discussions. The floor was a tangle of limbs. Senators seem unable to speak to one another without grabbing hands, throwing their arms over one another's shoulders, clenching each other's biceps, patting many backs. It's a very physical culture.

    At 2:50, Lott tried again. This time, the Senate finally agreed to agree on the agreed-upon schedule.

    "Welcome to the operations of the United States Senate," the majority leader said when the impeachment trial of President Clinton resumed. "It's never easy to get 100 senators to agree."

    All over the television dial, senators of every persuasion declared that they are eager to bring the trial to an end. This is plain in the growing number of empty seats on the floor, in the more frequent whispers back and forth, in the note-passing, in the grim stares.

    No one can be found who believes the president will be convicted. The leader of the House managers, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), found himself begging yesterday simply to be allowed to finish his case.

    "I don't think this whole sad, sad drama will end, we will never get it behind us until you vote up or down on the articles [of impeachment]," Hyde pleaded. "And when you do, however you vote, we'll all collect our papers, bow from the waist, thank you for your courtesy, and leave, and go gently into the night."

    But while just about everyone agreed to the basic idea of wrapping things up, "how?" was another question. The Washington air is buzzing with exit strategies. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has been pushing "adjournment-plus." Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) has floated "dismissal-plus." Feingold, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), cooked up what might be called "dismissal-minus": dismiss one article, proceed with the other.

    The Democrats offered to give the House managers a chance to rebut the White House defense – provided the idea of calling witnesses would be dropped.

    There's the depose-witnesses-but-don't-let- them-testify option.

    There's the call-witnesses-but-set-a-deadline option.

    There's the depose-witnesses-and-show-video-snippets option.

    These and many other trial balloons have taken flight in recent days. Some have been shot down. Some have dwindled to dots in the sky then vanished. Some are still bouncing around.

    But all point to a key fact about the trial. As it entered its third week, though it was wearing out its welcome, no one could make it leave.

    Not even the Senate's big guns. On Friday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) fired a salvo. The senior Senate Democrat; acknowledged master of Senate rules, history and culture; a man whose talent for producing some of the juiciest pork ever to come out of the Appropriations Committee engendered the admiration and awe of every colleague – Byrd announced he would move to dismiss the case against the president.

    That quickly appeared doomed.

    The next day a spokesman for Lott announced a shortcut of his own. The majority leader – this is the Senate's most powerful position – had decided there would be no debate on Byrd's motion or on the motion to subpoena witnesses. He was quite emphatic.

    By yesterday, the Senate was debating Byrd's motion.

    According to the antique rules of impeachment, all debate is conducted behind closed doors. Harkin and Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) tried to open the proceedings, but were easily defeated. The press was evicted, the spectator galleries were cleared, the House managers and White House lawyers packed their briefcases and went off to wait.

    The senators talked into the night – defying the widely held view that a debate without cameras would be the shortest in Senate history. While technically the time was available to argue about dismissal, in fact they took the opportunity – all 100 in one place, beyond the eyes and ears of the world, a gathering of The Club – to scope out the path ahead.

    Whether they find it, and how straight it runs, nobody knows.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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