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Thurmond Leads in a Resounding 'No'

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, February 5, 1999; Page A1

    The senior senator from South Carolina indeed, the senior senator from the known universe has dazzled observers of the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Republican Strom Thurmond has been in his seat, back straight, eyes clear, for every minute of every day. Very few senators can match that claim, and none of them is 96 years old.

    He has done it without complaint. But there came a moment yesterday when that endurance and fortitude seemed to reach its breaking point. Thurmond finally cried out.


    He was on his feet. His jaw was set defiantly. His fists tensed at his sides. Strom Thurmond was voting a most emphatic no.

    It was, in its way, one of the great unscripted moments in the trial, and after a short, shocked pause, the gallery broke into a little laugh that spread onto the floor. Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) sits next to Thurmond, and looking up at the angry ancient, he couldn't help chuckling.

    This is what Thurmond could not bear: the prospect of Monica S. Lewinsky giving live testimony on the floor of the United States Senate.

    Thurmond's vote came late in the game the roll is called alphabetically, so his name is 95th. The result was by then clear. Enough senators from both parties agreed with Thurmond to send the proposal to a resounding defeat.

    Still, it was Thurmond who drove home the fact that here, on this one point after all the bitterness, the recriminations, the conspiracies, the vengeance that this year of scandal has brought to Washington at long last people could agree on something.

    This wasn't a left-right issue. No one gets to the right of Strom Thurmond. It wasn't a Republican-Democrat issue. Strom Thurmond has been a pain to the Democratic Party since he broke with Harry S. Truman in 1948 and ran for president on the Dixiecrat ticket.

    The proposal to bring the president's former paramour to the Senate chamber transcended mere politics.

    This was especially true among the senior members of the Senate. Of the nine senators who have served more than a quarter-century five Republicans and four Democrats all but one voted to keep Lewinsky out. The lone dissenter was Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who, having arrived in January 1973, barely makes it into the ranks of the Old Guard.

    From the beginning of the trial four weeks ago, the spotlight has been on the so-called Republican moderates. If anyone would help the Democrats wind down the trial, the thinking went, it would be them.

    But on this particular issue, the Democrats didn't need the moderates. They had the party elders. With all 45 Democrats voting to block the testimony, only six Republicans were needed to prevail. Six of the 10 longest-serving Republican senators voted against the House managers.

    It had been a week since impeachment business was conducted in the chamber. A week of closed-door depositions, secret negotiations, abortive endgames and senators on television talk shows. A week made a big difference in terms of mood.

    The senators seemed looser more relaxed, perhaps, or maybe just slap-happy. The clothes were not quite as uniform as before. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) arrived sporting a scarlet vest and matching bow tie, while Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) wore a dark suit, dark shirt and light tie combination that gave him the look of a chorus member in a community theater production of "Guys and Dolls."

    Sens. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) slumped in their seats and whispered jokes back and forth like wiseacres in junior high math class. Sens. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) were, by contrast, the class grinds, spending each recess at adjoining desks huddled over their work, apparently polishing a bipartisan proposal to censure the president.

    The House impeachment managers argued dutifully for their request to subpoena Lewinsky. Live testimony was the last unknown, the one unpredictable that could somehow catalyze a miracle. "We want to have a final chapter," pleaded Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), whose down-home manner and good-natured poise have made him the most effective salesman for the pro-impeachment cause.

    But clearly the fire was going out. The Senate rules provided for two hours of debate on the House motion to call Lewinsky and to use videotaped snippets of her deposition (and the depositions of two others) during presentations on Saturday. In the first weeks of the trial, the lawyers could burn up two hours without breaking a sweat.

    Yesterday, the two sides used barely half their allotted time.

    Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was caught by surprise, not quite ready to proceed to a vote. "All time has been yielded back on both sides?" he asked, incredulously. "Uh, we had expected that this would take a little bit longer."

    There was laughter. A recess was called. Then the votes were taken, six of them in all, and most of them bipartisan steps to move things toward the end.

    For the first time since the trial began on Jan. 13, the decorum of the Senate was pierced by the outside world. The polls say most Americans want a final vote taken on impeachment and the trial brought to an end. Richard Llamas, 48, a local man, is apparently one of them.

    Late in the day, as the senators were voting on their final procedural dispute, Llamas stood up from his gallery seat and shouted, "Good God almighty, take the vote and get it over with!" His voice rang through the chamber. Capitol Police rushed in, took him under each arm and hustled him away.

    Not yet, Mr. Llamas. But soon.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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