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Sarbanes Shifts to Favor Open Senate Debate on Impeachment

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  • By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A09

    Less than 24 hours after joining most Republicans in voting to keep secret the Senate's deliberations on President Clinton's impeachment case, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) switched his position yesterday and indicated he now supports making the debate public.

    Sarbanes had hoped that a closed session might lead to a quick compromise to end the trial, but he had a change of heart when he saw that one was not in reach, his spokesman said.

    Sarbanes' reversal did not change the outcome of a second vote taken yesterday on whether to open deliberations. The Senate voted mainly along party lines, 58 to 41, against opening deliberations. Supporters were 26 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to make it happen.

    Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) voted Monday to open the debate but was absent yesterday because of illness. She had previously invoked the public's "right to know."

    Sarbanes' Virginia neighbor, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), also strongly supported public deliberations.

    "Up to this point, all aspects of these proceedings, including the grand jury testimony and depositions, have been open to the public," Robb said Monday.

    Sarbanes spokesman Jesse Jacobs said the senator's office received "minimal calls" about his initial support for keeping deliberations private.

    Jacobs said the four-term incumbent had hoped for a scenario in which the parties might settle the contentious question of how to end the trial by meeting without the presence of television cameras or reporters.

    "The closed session [Monday] did not result in a bipartisan solution," Jacobs said. "In view of these developments, the senator believes that the debate on the issue of witnesses should be held in the public forum."

    Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Peter B. Krauser declined to comment on Sarbanes' early support for closed deliberations, wary of injecting himself into the split between the state's two Democratic senators.

    State GOP Chairman Richard D. Bennett said he was disappointed at Sarbanes' change of heart.

    "I'm afraid he's gone back to his wayward ways," Bennett said. "Senator Sarbanes has previously gone through the matter of impeachment as a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1970s. I think he understands there are certain tensions that run high and perhaps senators can speak candidly when in closed session."

    Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) stayed with the GOP majority in both votes.

    "We've got to move on without undue delay in this trial," Warner said Monday. He said senators would be tempted in public to use their full allotted time of 10 minutes each to debate, or 16 hours in total.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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