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Consensus Reached After Twists and Turns

Daschle and Lott Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at their press conference Friday following the Senate bipartisan impeachment caucus. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page A1

    It looked like everything had fallen apart. Tom Daschle was standing in GOP leader Trent Lott's outer office Thursday afternoon, when a junior Republican senator came on the television screen to blame the Democratic leader for canceling a bipartisan meeting over impeachment trial ground rules.

    Daschle was astounded: He hadn't even known there was a meeting.

    Sensing a double-cross, he rushed to the Senate chamber to protest. Lott quickly followed Daschle and caught up with him on the floor to explain that it was all a misunderstanding. The two huddled briefly, and Daschle said he was due at a news conference. Fine, said Lott, I'll come, too.

    The spur-of-the-moment decision to appear together in a show of solidarity proved to be the turning point in the Senate's marathon effort last week to forge an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on how to conduct the impeachment trial of President Clinton.

    The next morning, the two parties held an extraordinary closed two-hour session of all 100 senators in the red-brocaded Old Senate Chamber and produced a plan satisfactory to both sides. They would begin Clinton's impeachment trial this week and wait until later this month to worry about the most contentious issue -- whether to call witnesses.

    The Senate, in typical fashion, had made it up as it went along. As described by senators and other sources familiar with the process, there were late nights, multiple meetings, failed trial balloons and near blowups, but ultimately there was consensus, the lifeblood of the upper chamber. It was the first test of whether a Senate that so often has deadlocked on hard questions could somehow rise above the bitter partisanship that marked the House impeachment debate -- and remarkably the Senate passed.

    "By the time we got around to resolving this, Republicans and Democrats weren't reacting totally like Republicans and Democrats; they were saying, 'What's good for the Senate? What's good for the country?' " said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). "It sounds kind of corny, but I think that's what happened."

    For Lott (R-Miss.), a man waiting to exhale for a week, it was a tactical victory of the first order. He had kept peace with the Democrats, maintained the dignity of the Senate, prevented Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the rest of the House prosecutors and the White House legal team from openly denouncing him, and avoided an open break with the conservative groups that buttress his party.

    Still, there is no way of knowing whether Lott and Daschle (D-S.D.) can sustain comity beyond the initial phase of the trial that will begin midweek. The very essence of the agreement forged on Friday is that the most troubling question was deferred.

    But if the Senate votes to begin calling witnesses, many senators believe the chances that the trial may deteriorate into a prolonged and highly partisan free-for-all will increase.

    The First Plan

    As is so often the case in difficult matters confronting the Senate, movement began with a long-standing, across-the-aisle friendship. Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) had known each other as attorneys general of their respective states and have been friends for 10 years.

    Even while the House was still debating impeachment in early December, the pair started crafting a bipartisan procedural compromise in hopes of avoiding a replay of the partisan rancor roiling their neighbors on the other side of the Capitol.

    As originally drafted, the Gorton-Lieberman plan would have enabled the Senate to skirt the issue of witnesses by holding a test vote on whether Clinton's alleged offenses rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that would justify removal from office. Only if two-thirds of the senators agreed would a full-scale trial be contemplated.

    The idea was designed to avert a prolonged trial by demonstrating up front that the Senate did have the votes to convict. If not, why continue?

    The two senators informed Lott and Daschle of their plans and received steady encouragement. Their efforts were kept under wraps until Dec. 29, when the Associated Press reached Lott by telephone. "Are witnesses required? I don't think so," Lott said.

    This was good news to the White House, which wanted to avoid any complications that could hurt chances for a quick acquittal. But it was a bombshell for the House prosecutors, some of whom had put their careers in jeopardy by leading the charge on impeachment. They keenly wanted a chance to make the case that the president perjured himself and obstructed justice in a full-scale Senate trial.

    Hyde saw the AP quote and called Lott almost immediately. Hyde, 74, is a generation older than Lott, 57, but the two served together on the House Judiciary Committee before Lott came to the Senate. Hyde was not pleased with Lott's talk of an abbreviated trial, and said so in an icy letter released to news organizations even before Lott saw it. "We need not sacrifice substance and duty for speed," the letter said.

    While the letter was probably unavoidable, it did not show the kind of deference Lott and other senators expect. It also imbued Senate Democrats with the misgiving that their Republican brethren were being held hostage by House zealots.

    So after Lott returned to Washington late Monday, he knew he was in trouble. Hard-line GOP conservatives, such as Sens. James M. Inhofe (Okla.) and John D. Ashcroft (Mo.), opposed any effort to truncate Clinton's trial. Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) said he preferred "the whole nine yards." Even Republican moderates, such as Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.) and Susan Collins (Maine), suggested a need for at least a few witnesses.

    A New Effort

    Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) arrived in Washington Tuesday night to find a note from Lott summoning him to appear at a meeting the next afternoon. He had been chosen as one of eight Republican senators to serve on a 16-member bipartisan team of "consultants" to Lott and Daschle. The two leaders had met with one group of four Republicans and four Democrats Tuesday evening, and wanted to see the second group, of which Thompson was a part, Wednesday afternoon.

    Earlier on Wednesday, Lott and Hyde talked face-to-face about the broad outlines of the House prosecution in what one knowledgeable source called "a gentlemanly meeting" that avoided problem areas -- such as a witness list.

    But further consultations were necessary, Lott explained to Daschle, Thompson and rest of the group of eight that afternoon. His problem, he said, was that he wasn't ready to sit down with the House prosecutors and talk details.

    Maybe a bipartisan team of six could do the heavy lifting and report back?

    Lott picked Thompson, a part-time actor and career trial lawyer who oversaw the 1997 campaign finance investigation, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a plain-talker popular in both parties, and Budget Committee Chairman Domenici, a patient man with immense experience negotiating difficult agreements.

    The Democrats chose Lieberman, trusted by Republicans as an honest broker in innumerable legislative transactions, Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), very partisan but a cerebral man and a good listener, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a congenial nonstop talker and senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

    This smaller group met with House members in the evening in Lott's hideaway office in an obscure hallway on the Capitol's third floor. Hyde was there, but he let his lieutenants do most of the talking.

    Two southerners, Reps. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) and Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) -- persuasive, even-tempered men -- quietly pressed for witnesses. But Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) was more passionate: Despite having won reelection with only 50.8 percent of the vote, he was willing to go forward. "If ever there was a person who had reason politically to drop this, it was me," one source quoted Rogan as saying.

    Democrat Levin wanted to know why the House members were now insisting on calling witnesses, "when they hadn't called any witnesses in the House." The prosecutors said they hadn't had enough time. Time is a problem for us, too, Levin pointed out.

    Levin said the senators wanted the House members to understand that the Senate would make the rules for the trial, and that the rules would not condone a prolonged proceeding filled with salacious testimony. The House Republicans got the message, and promised that former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky would face no explicit questions about her sexual relationship with Clinton.

    Shortly after 8 p.m., the Senate team shifted to Stevens's first-floor Appropriations Committee offices, some of the most sumptuously furnished rooms in the Capitol. The president's lawyers were summoned at the behest of Lott and Daschle. The six ordered pizza and ate it off one of Stevens's desks while they waited for White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and Gregory Craig to arrive.

    The White House lawyers did not want witnesses, Levin recalled, but they realized that the Senate had the prerogative to call them. "They wanted a road map," Levin said. The meeting was "very professional."

    Falling Apart

    Thompson felt the meetings had shown that all sides were willing to be reasonable. But that wasn't apparent Thursday, which began on a somber note and seemed to get worse. After a morning caucus, the Democrats seemed discouraged, and convinced that the Republicans were adamant about a full-scale trial.

    Hyde appeared at 10 a.m. to read the articles of impeachment, the first solemn formality in the transfer of jurisdiction from the House to the Senate. After the ceremony, senators congregated on the floor, and Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) told Lott that he thought the two sides were getting closer.

    What about a bipartisan caucus? he said.

    Daschle, on his way out of the chamber, said offhandedly, "That might be a good idea," and went to meet with his Democratic colleagues.

    But Lott was getting pessimistic. After the senators were sworn in as jurors at 1 p.m. by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, he visited Daschle in his office and brought matters to a head.

    With no agreement apparently in sight, Lott said he planned a hold a vote that afternoon on a "Republican plan": opening statements by the House and White House, followed by a vote on whether to call witnesses. Fine, said Daschle, we'll offer our plan as an alternative: opening statements followed by an up-or-down vote on conviction.

    A bit later, Daschle was standing in Lott's office and saw Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) on television denouncing him for canceling a bipartisan caucus. The minority leader was aware the idea had been floated, but nothing had been settled. Cooperation appeared to be going up in smoke.

    Bipartisanship Revived

    But then it didn't. After Lott conferred with Daschle on the Senate floor, they went to a joint news conference where Lott snatched what turned out to be victory from despair. Nickles's offhand idea was a good one, he and Daschle had decided, so the bipartisan caucus was on for Friday morning.

    Now, Lott had to deal with the House. At 6:15 p.m., he made a pilgrimage to the House Judiciary Committee headquarters in the Rayburn House Office Building to deliver the bad news to Hyde and his 12-man prosecution team: A full-scale trial was not going to happen -- at least at the outset. He took Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an outspoken young conservative and former House member, to help him make the argument.

    For nearly two hours, the prosecutors explained why they needed to call witnesses and refused to accept anything less than a trial with witnesses. At one point, Lott and Santorum were sent out of the room, then invited back. The prosecutors couldn't endorse Lott's proposal.

    Lott was unmoved. "He was saying, 'Look, here's the deal and you have to trust us,' " said one committee source. " 'This is the best you're going to get in this situation.' "

    The end came fittingly in the Old Senate Chamber, an elegant, daunting place steeped in the history of compromises past. To help the atmosphere along, Lott and Daschle had asked Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to make the opening speech. When Byrd talks about senators' prerogatives, responsibilities or obligations, his younger colleagues pay close heed.

    The 81-year-old Byrd spoke for about 20 minutes, about half from a prepared text, half improvising. The White House "has sullied itself," the House has "fallen into the black pit of partisan self-indulgence" and his beloved Senate "is teetering on the brink." He implored the Senate "to restore some order to the anger which has overtaken this country and the chaos which threatens this city."

    The combination of Lott, Daschle, Byrd and the intimate majesty of the surroundings created an atmosphere that could not be ignored.

    "It is almost as if the hand of Providence reached down into the historic chamber," recalled Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.).

    But the last debate turned not on a speech for the ages, but on a common sense observation by conservative Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), the last scheduled speaker: that under its own rules, the Senate would have to consider calling witnesses at some point in the impeachment trial, whether it wanted to or not.

    Fair enough, acknowledged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat and no friend of Gramm. Why not hear from the House prosecutors, hear from Clinton's defense lawyers, ask questions and only then decide whether to call witnesses? Kennedy used a baseball analogy, comparing the compromise to "going down to first base and second base together" before deciding whether to go beyond that.

    The agreement was struck.

    Staff writers Helen Dewar, Juliet Eilperin and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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