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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page C1

    The important decisions of the United States Senate are made in rooms stocked with bottles of Perrier and bowls of pasta salad. The Mike Mansfield Room. The Lyndon B. Johnson Room. Room S-334 in the Capitol where the quartet known as the Singing Senators rehearses.

    Which is to say that these important decisions are not made on the floor while the Senate is in session, where formality carries the day and Chief Justice William Rehnquist presides over the impeachment trial of President Clinton.

    Resolutions to the Senate's most vexing problems can't be crafted in plain view. Not with C-SPAN around. The necessary quelling of fears and massaging of egos, the messy madness of legislative business is nearly always carried out in this elastic form of candid talk called the Private Meeting.

    Yesterday, the senators sat in their stiff chairs again and dutifully carried out their roles as "triers of fact." For the first time, they got to lob questions back and forth – well, written questions that Rehnquist awkwardly read – to prosecutors and Clinton's defense team. But the real action took place off court, in groups of four or more, in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, in the hideaway warrens of other senators, over meals, over drinks.

    "I had breakfast with several senators," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "No big deal. No conspiracies."

    The Senate is at such a critical point in the trial that some senators were not willing to own up to their meetings. But they all are maneuvering in some fashion or other. If not plotting, they are joining plots.

    "A lot of people are talking and they have been talking for a long time," advised Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "Probably most of the senators want to have an expeditious conclusion. People are just floating different ideas on both sides of the aisle."

    And how many meetings did the senator participate in yesterday?

    "Many."

    Then he thought about it for a second.

    "I better be careful. . . . I've had occasional meetings."

    With Republicans?

    "I'd better not say with whom."

    The meetings all revolve around one essential question: How does the Senate find a graceful way to end the trial?

    Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) says he plans to offer a motion to dismiss the charges and end the trial next week. But still the meetings continued – on whether there should be a vote on the impeachment articles themselves, on whether some witnesses should be called, on whether those witnesses should give depositions in private. And if there are depositions but no live testimony before the Senate, will there be a judge present? And if so, will that judge be Rehnquist?

    "To simply say witnesses or no witnesses, it's a much more complicated question," explained Levin.

    And so there were more meetings. Meetings about whether the Senate could forge a compromise that would not give partisan advantage to either Republicans or Democrats. Meetings about the dignity of the Senate, its constitutional responsibilities, what's fair to House prosecutors and what's fair to the president.

    "Sometimes when you're trying to reach a bipartisan solution, you have to get people away, where they can speak sincerely and freely," offered Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

    It minimizes the potential to be political and maximizes the potential to be statesmanlike. Or so Hatch explained.

    So yesterday, when the trial wasn't in session, he was in meeting after meeting after meeting. "A pile of them."

    "I've been here since 6 o'clock in the morning," Hatch said. "I've met with leadership. I've met with various Democrats. Then we have those questions." Meaning the questions senators began asking at the trial yesterday and will continue asking today. "There are various people who want certain questions asked at certain times in certain ways. There are all kinds of problems."

    For the Senate, this is usual practice. In the early days, the Senate met behind closed doors until it opened for legislative business in 1795. And even then it met in private session for treaties and nominations until 1929.

    It was not uncommon for the Senate to take major action without public debate, like when it eliminated half of its committees in 1920 or when it changed some of its own impeachment rules for Andrew Johnson's trial in 1868.

    This drives historians crazy. But it is so. It is the Senate's way.

    "It goes almost without saying that any issue that's greatly complex needs to be delicately negotiated in a private setting," said Senate historian Richard Baker. "In any parliamentary body there needs to be some opportunity to work things through privately before going to the public stage."

    Yesterday, Lott suggested returning to senators' new favorite meeting place, the Old Senate Chamber, where the procedures that are governing the trial were hatched. Get all the senators in one big private confab. A good idea, many said.

    "I found that caucus particularly helpful," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). "It was really an excellent caucus." You can often tell when senators are headed to an important meeting because they adopt their important-meeting gait. They start speed-walking through the hallways, sometimes with aides in tow, sometimes with heads lowered as if they're staring at their shoes, making it plain they don't want to be bothered right now. Don Nickles, the assistant majority leader from Oklahoma, is an especially good practitioner of this art.

    But sometimes all this dashing of senators to their meetingsdoesn't amount to diddly.

    "The only meeting off the floor that is helpful is Daschle and Lott," asserted Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) "The others just don't have anything else to do."

    You mean these other meetings are a waste of time?

    "They're unlikely to be productive."

    This, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) admitted, was somewhat correct.

    After proclaiming his meetings "good," he was asked what these gatherings had resolved. "I'm not sure anything, but at least we're talking."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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