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The Majority Rules in Trial Votes

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Dan Morgan
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 29, 1999; Page A17

    In the end, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) simply threw up his hands. Even with a major last-minute concession, he was unable to coax Senate Democrats into a bipartisan agreement over how to finish President Clinton's impeachment trial and the Republicans finally steamrolled them.

    In a series of party-line votes, the GOP-dominated Senate rejected the Democrats' endgame plan, rejected a Democratic motion to allow a vote on the two articles of impeachment and adopted a Republican proposal that could allow videotaped testimony on the Senate floor.

    Because the votes occurred in an impeachment trial, a simple majority ruled, just like the House. And just as partisan passions had dominated the impeachment debate in the House, they now threatened to engulf the Senate.

    "For 2 weeks we did have a pretty decent relationship going on," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) "But it's going to be hard not to put a partisan label on this for all of history."

    Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) played down the partisan differences. Despite mostly party-line votes, he said, "I don't think that we have damaged the amity, the personal amity across the aisle, even though we are obviously debating a very, very divisive issue."

    For Lott, who gathered kudos from both sides of the aisle for his ability to forge a bipartisan consensus in the early part of the trial, yesterday's failure may have been a personal blow, but it was also an indication that there were simply too many differences separating the parties.

    In fact, they were never close. The Republicans wanted to give the House prosecutors every possible chance to make their case, while Democrats wanted to vote on the impeachment articles as soon as possible and were not displeased when the proceedings turned partisan.

    In the end, these two views were irreconcilable.

    The Republicans offered at least four versions of a narrow agreement on procedures for deposing prosecution witnesses Monica S. Lewinsky, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Sidney Blumenthal.

    But they also wanted to allow for the possibility of bringing the witnesses to the Senate floor, and they left open the possibility for a senator to make a findings-of-fact motion that would detail Clinton's misconduct before a final vote on the two impeachment articles.

    These loopholes were too big for the Democrats. They wanted an agreement that would sharply curtail use of witness depositions, keep witnesses off the Senate floor and forbid a findings-of-fact motion. They wanted a guaranteed vote on the articles one on which they are all but certain to prevail by noon Feb. 12.

    In the final moments, the Republicans made a major concession by giving Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) the power to veto efforts by the House prosecutors to call further witnesses. Lott's copy of the resolution had the change handwritten into the original when he went to the floor to present it. It wasn't enough.

    Still, after the vote, both leaders tried to put the best face on the situation. Daschle repeated his side's wish that "we want this matter ended," detailed the Democrats' problems with the GOP resolution but took care to note that "I don't fault" Lott for his inability to forge a deal.

    Lott was equally conciliatory: "I'm smiling," he told reporters after the vote. "I'm not ranting and raving, and I don't feel like anybody got the upper hand here. I thought we got a fair arrangement."

    But kind words notwithstanding, it was probably Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) who most succinctly summed up the day's work: "It's been hardball on both sides," he said.

    Democrats began their day still smarting from Wednesday's partisan votes, when they failed to dismiss the case against Clinton and failed to deter the GOP from allowing the House managers to call their three witnesses.

    "This impeachment trial is now a cadaver," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), noting that the Republicans were nowhere close to getting the 67 votes needed to convict Clinton and throw him out of office. "The Republicans are showing it around some, putting it on exhibit, but it's dead, all the same."

    Republicans were interested in ensuring that members of their caucus who are strongly opposed to Clinton or who felt they needed more evidence had the chance to hear it any way they wanted. They also wanted to show respect for House prosecutors, who have pressed their case in the teeth of adverse public opinion, and to make sure that history would know they had seen the impeachment process through fairly.

    The two parties had first exchanged proposals Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the Senate approved a motion to depose three possible witnesses. Democratic staffers took a look at what was then an open-ended GOP plan that could have allowed prosecutors to call batches of new witnesses. Dispirited, they went home for the night, Democratic leadership sources said.

    Lott and Daschle met for 90 minutes yesterday morning, and both parties postponed caucuses so they could meet some more. Around 11:30 a.m., Lott gave Daschle a new proposal, and at noon Daschle presented it to his caucus.

    Its elliptical language was practically indecipherable, according to Dodd, who called it "a Rubik's cube." The caucus also did not like the possibility of having witnesses, of findings of- fact, or of calling extra witnesses: "You just can't give all the cards to [lead prosecutor Rep.] Henry [J.] Hyde," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill).

    The Democrats rejected the GOP plan. Although there were an array of problems involved, the symbol of everything that separated them was the Democrats' initial insistence that the depositions not be videotaped and that the only testimony that should be allowed on the Senate floor would be transcripts of the depositions.

    The Democrats had a hard time explaining this. It was widely thought that they would try to get the Republicans to agree to use videotapes on the Senate floor in lieu of live testimony. Now they opposed both. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) tried to explain:

    "The House brought us a written record; they took no testimony from witnesses," Levin said. "We should treat witnesses exactly like they were treated in the House."

    Many Democrats considered this an untenable position, and their caucus backed off. Videotape the testimony, they said, and allow senators to look at it in private, but do not allow it to be displayed on the floor, and don't allow live witnesses.

    That wouldn't work, the Republicans said, but "videotape" was really the symbol of something far more basic and far more serious: Democrats wanted to throttle the prosecution, keep the witnesses to a minimum and go straight to a vote on the articles. Republicans wanted to depose the witnesses to see if anything new and interesting turned up, and in the end, they had the votes.

    "We're going to videotape depositions, then we're going to sit down and decide how much to use of it," said Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), one of Lott's lead negotiators. "It's just a question of whether you foreclose it on the front end."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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