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Public Deliberations Unlikely in Senate

Phil Gramm, Reuters Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) speaks with colleagues prior to the start of closing arguments in the impeachment trial Monday. (Reuters)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, February 9, 1999; Page A1

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) defused efforts to open jury deliberations yesterday in President Clinton's impeachment trial, virtually ensuring that senators would conduct their final debate on Clinton's guilt or innocence in secret.

    Democrats and a smattering of Republicans have pushed to change 19th-century Senate rules to open to television cameras and the public the final deliberations in the trial. But several Republican senators had expressed concern that Democrats would use an open deliberation as a forum to shift attention from the president's misdeeds to a political attack on GOP prosecutors.

    The change, to be voted on today, must be approved by a two-thirds majority, and proponents have struggled for a fortnight to find support. Supporters had failed badly on two previous efforts to force open the Senate's secret deliberations, but they figured to have a better chance for the final debate if Lott brought his considerable weight to bear on wavering Republicans.

    But Lott spokesman John Czwartacki told reporters that the measure was almost certainly doomed: "The Senate is now approaching a mode where it's most like a jury, and at no time in the history of trial-by-jury have those deliberations been public," said Czwartacki, paraphrasing Lott's views. "Senators should be able to voice reasons for their votes and do so in the public record, but it is a dangerous precedent to set for juries anywhere in America to put this deliberation in public."

    But of far greater concern to the GOP, several Republican senators said, was the likelihood that the Democrats would use the closing debate to unleash a public harangue against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the GOP House prosecutors for bringing the case in the first place.

    "Why have a lot of political speeches at the tail end that maybe don't deal with the guilt or innocence of the president but might deal with everything else?" said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "For some people, this is seen as a political game and not a judicial proceeding."

    Indeed, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said the Democrats would make the conduct of Starr and the House GOP managers in shaping their cases against Clinton an important element of the final impeachment debate. "In my judgment, these charges, at least as to perjury, are extraordinarily faulty, and I think Starr is a significant factor in . . . the propriety of this case and the place we find ourselves in," Kerry said.

    With Clinton's acquittal virtually assured on two impeachment articles on perjury and obstruction of justice, both parties were pondering political formulas yesterday to fulfill their constitutional responsibility and avoid the wrath of an electorate that is fed up with the impeachment proceeding.

    Democrats are pushing for open deliberations and a toughly worded motion of censure after the trial concludes, holding that they need an opportunity to explain that while they may vote for acquittal, they do not condone the president's sexual behavior with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

    "This is an opportunity to say what we're going to do and why we're going to do it," Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said of the final deliberations. "To do it behind closed doors just doesn't make a lot of sense. This is the public's right to know."

    But several Republicans said they had no desire to help their adversaries find political cover. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) pronounced himself "not interested" in open deliberations if they're "just going to be used so Democrats can have some air time to trash the Republicans."

    By bottling up final deliberations in a closed-door session -- the actual vote on the impeachment articles would still be in public -- some Republicans argued yesterday that they were showing fealty to the Constitution, speeding up the proceeding and avoiding a messy political spectacle during the trial's final hours.

    "I believe the rule is there for a very good reason," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "With executive sessions we have a real chance of getting people to talk with each other rather than at each other. They can talk turkey. . . . You want to depoliticize it as much as possible."

    And shorten it, some said. "What I want to do is wind this whole matter up as soon as possible," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.). "My fear is if we take [all this time] we won't get to finish it this week, which I think is a very, very important deadline."

    Under the trial rules, each senator is allotted 15 minutes to speak during deliberations -- 25 hours if all senators use all their time, and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), for one, did not look forward to the experience.

    "The country is awfully weary of this, and I do not relish the thought of three days of my colleagues talking about this issue," Smith said. In closed session, "we could do it in one evening, and the words would disappear in the ether -- and mercifully so."

    Still, by closing the gate on deliberations, Republicans reaped blistering attacks from Democrats, who scored them for avoiding senators' duty to put their views on the record so they could be examined by the electorate and by posterity.

    "I just can't imagine something of this magnitude not being debated in public," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said, in one typical comment. "I can't see any reason. This is a deliberation on overturning an election."

    And Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) also noted that Republicans have their own political dilemma: having to explain why they voted to oust a popular president, or having to explain to their conservative supporters why they didn't.

    "They don't have any good choices," Durbin said. "They're going to anger their constituents, or they're going to anger the American people. Their best move is to go do it in the dark of night."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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