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Votes Signal Senate Wants an Ending

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle speaks to reporters after a Democratic caucus Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, February 5, 1999; Page A22

    For the first time since President Clinton's impeachment trial began four weeks ago, a bipartisan majority of senators has declared that enough is enough.

    A flurry of late afternoon floor votes yesterday, coupled with maneuvering off the floor to strangle a GOP proposal to reprimand the president rather than remove him, offered the strongest sign to date that Republicans have now joined Democrats in pressing for a quick end to the proceedings.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters that it was time to bring the trial to a close and to move on to the nation's business a sentiment that seemed to animate his GOP colleagues on a day of crucial procedural motions.

    "No one has to twist my arm to get out of this," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). "Everybody will be pleased to finish this up," added Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

    For weeks, Clinton's acquittal on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice has been a foregone conclusion, but until now Senate Republicans have largely hung together in giving the House managers much of the time and opportunity they sought to make their case. But in the wake of three days of depositions of Monica S. Lewinsky, attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal that turned up nothing that would alter the course of the trial, Republicans have grown anxious to wrap things up.

    The strongest indication came in the flood of Republicans who joined the Democrats yesterday to deny the managers' request to summon Lewinsky to the Senate floor to testify about her relationship with Clinton and efforts to cover it up. The managers argued that it was crucial to their case for the senators to see Lewinsky in person to judge her credibility, but the Senate voted 70 to 30 to block her appearance.

    In a departure from the mostly party-line votes that characterized the first phase of the trial, 25 of the Senate's 55 Republicans voted with the Democrats. The defectors represented a regional and ideological mix, including southern conservatives such as Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.); New England moderates and conservatives such as Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Judd Gregg (N.H.); and midwestern and western conservatives such as Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Robert F. Bennett (Utah). They also included some though not all of the GOP senators who face tough reelection challenges in two years: James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and John H. Chafee (R.I.).

    "That was a significant vote," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). "Here was a star witness and the Senate decides we don't even want to call her. . . . Everybody is looking for an exit door. The door is getting bigger."

    Republican defectors cited two main factors for their votes: a belief that Lewinsky's testimony would add nothing of importance to the trial, and a fear that the spectacle of a young woman being questioned in the intimidating atmosphere of the Senate chamber would only intensify the negative public attitude toward Congress's handling of the impeachment issue.

    Many Republicans have insisted from the start that they would not be influenced in their deliberations by polls showing that Americans overwhelmingly oppose impeachment. But a New York Times/CBS News poll this week reporting that most Americans now condemn the Senate for its handling of the impeachment as much as they did the House seemed to have had some impact.

    "I thought that girl had been through enough," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa.) in explaining his vote against calling Lewinsky. "Why put her through more?" Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said: "She's a tragic figure, and the whole situation is very distressing, but I don't think she would in any way have influenced any votes by her presence."

    Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said it would have taken "explosive-type testimony" by Lewinsky in her deposition Monday to have justified bringing her to the floor, but "her testimony didn't produce that." Calling Lewinsky to the floor at this point in the trial would do nothing more than "create a spectacle," Shelby added.

    For nearly four weeks, the pace, mood and partisan tensions of the trial have ebbed and flowed. After a collegial start, partisan bickering broke out intermittently, but the 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats always managed to step back from the brink of the kind of rancor that marked the House impeachment proceedings focusing mostly on bringing the trial to a speedy and decorous conclusion.

    Yesterday, the Senate moved decisively to that end. After a morning of party caucuses and behind-the-scenes dealing by the GOP and Democratic leadership, the Senate took only a couple of hours to dispose of a range of thorny issues, from blocking Lewinsky's testimony on the floor to authorizing the showing of excerpts of the videotaped depositions on the floor tomorrow.

    Off the floor, Lott and the GOP leaders cleared the last obstacle by all but abandoning a "findings-of-fact" proposal promoted by a handful of Republican moderates a plan that has drawn sharp condemnation from the White House and the Democrats. The proposed motion, crafted by a task force that includes Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Snowe, would detail Clinton's misconduct before acquitting him of the impeachment articles.

    Proponents argued that the language reflects what most Republicans and Democrats have already said publicly about the president and would ensure that Clinton doesn't escape some formal reprimand before the trial ends. But Democrats and the White House charged that the approach is unconstitutional and represents a back-door attack on a president they can't convict.

    When the Senate Democrats threatened an all-out floor fight and even conservative Republicans warned they would oppose the plan Lott and the GOP leadership began to back away from the proposal.

    By late yesterday, key Republicans said the proposal was dead. And Domenici and the other backers said that it would make little sense to try to push through a measure of this sort without bipartisan support.

    "There obviously is tremendous pressure from the White House to have [the Democrats] toe the line," said Collins.

    Now, the only option is a Democratic proposal to offer a sternly worded resolution of censure after the trial is concluded, but many Republicans are cool to that idea or argue that it is unconstitutional as well.

    Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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