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Washington: America's Central Processing Unit

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 8, 1999; Page B1

    "We will have a bipartisan Senate conference so that we can talk to each other and listen to each other and understand what we're actually suggesting as to how we should proceed . . . "
    Sen. Trent Lott, yesterday

    "We want to give it another effort, another 24 hours, or less, to see if we can't find a way to resolve how we can proceed, prior to the time we'd have a vote on a way with which to conduct the trial . . . "
    Sen. Thomas Daschle, immediately afterward.

    Impeachment ground rules. Ah rapture! Ah joy!

    We're in the middle of one of those wonderful official Washington weeks, a what- shape- is- the- table, rules- driven, negotiate- a- thon. Doors close, status rules and language goes Latinate. Lunch table palaver tarries on the procedural and young K Street minds turn to thoughts of process process process.

    It is, in other words, the sort of utterly important, procedure- driven week that transfixes Washington. And strongly suggests to the rest of the nation that we've lost our minds.

    Some hint of that cognitive dissonance can be seen on the television news and on the front pages of out- of- town newspapers, which paid rather more attention to the jet- fueled stock market and decision of millionaires in shorts and billionaires in business suits to resume the professional basketball season than to the impeachment follies.

    And who could blame the media barons? Official Washington waxing procedural about plans for the maybe trial of a lame- duck president for allegedly lying about years- old, low- rent sex pretty much defines a not- ready- for- prime- time event.

    "The NBA is going to transcend the Senate. Larry Flynt is going to transcend the American Senate," says Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor who keeps an eye on the crossroads between politics and popular culture. "Look at the senators: Their haircuts, their clothes. Not an earring among them.

    "They're not a competitive media organization."

    Now this is a bit unfair to our buttoned- down national capital. The impeachment of a president, after all, defines an important news event. If our high- achieving, competitive, meritocratic denizens tend to fixate on such matters, well, isn't that what they're supposed to do?

    Procedure and process are work- product and art-form in Washington. It suffuses the city's political culture, national and local. In New York, in Philadelphia, in Boston, a mayor hires a police chief in about eight minutes. In Washington, they form search committees that report to a search commission that reports to a mayor who reports to a board.

    "We tend to look at the world through opposite ends of the telescope from the rest of the country," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "Sally Quinn can give you the difference in rules between a back-room barbecue and a dinner for 12. That's not necessarily the case elsewhere."

    Thus we have the impassioned debate between White House, Senate and House to establish a process to arrive at a procedure for the impeachment trial. Everything's in play: To subpoena or not subpoena. To cross-examine or not. To have a three-week quickie trial or a three-month extravaganza. To an outsider, it can sound like blathery foreplay.

    But in impeachment politics, which are Washington politics, political style and substance are inseparable. Take the talk of witnesses. The White House really doesn't want any. And a lot of Republicans really can't live without them.

    And viewed through a lens of political strategy, they're both right.

    "The White House is striving for a process that is only about abstract legal questions without reference to messy details," says Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University. "Whereas the Republicans know they need to change the emotional dynamic in the nation, so they want the process to focus on the gory and salacious details."

    There is, too, the fact that everyone, on every side, at every level, is a lawyer. Lawyers loathe legal uncertainty. And there is no terra more incognita than an impeachment trial. You can hear the fear in White House spokesman Joe Lockhart's voice as he frames the stakes for his boss.

    "We may be in a situation where we do move forward without clear rules of the road," he says. "I would suggest that that would be a situation, an environment, that is manifestly unfair to the president."

    Indeed, what's described to the nation as a musty debate over Senate rules and procedure may be seen as an effort to forge a coalition at a time when neither Democratic nor Republican leaders can enforce party discipline. How many votes can be assembled for censure? Would this group of Democrats agree to a trial? Would that clump of Republicans agree to dispensing with witnesses?

    "They're afraid of starting without knowing where they are going," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at Boston University. "And nobody's in control right now, not the Democrats, not the Republicans."

    So like good Washingtonians, the politicians talk process while they stall for time. And reporters, old Washington hands all, groove on it. They're going to call witnesses?! The president will sign a censure motion!? The entire Senate is caucusing? In the old Senate chamber or the new Senate chamber?

    "The Republicans that I am working with the three Republicans and two Democrats we are all in sync about making sure that we make this a bipartisan process," Sen. Joseph Biden tells a rapt Larry King the other night. "Process is essential; that's our goal; that's what we're trying to do."

    On and on it goes. And the nation stifles a yawn.

    "We've come to the high point of American politics where the entire Senate decision-making process only has importance to those in the Senate and those writing about it," says Moss, from his perch 250 miles north of the Beltway. "The stock market hitting 9,500 supersedes anything the Senate can do."

    NBA basketball, anyone?

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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