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Senators Find Private Deliberations Create Public Confusion

A Capitol Hill police officer guards a door to the U.S. Senate chamber during Wednesday's closed deliberations. (Reuters)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, February 11, 1999; Page A16

    As the Senate prepared to resume its secret deliberations yesterday, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) urged his colleagues to "use a lot of discretion" in discussing the trial of the president outside the chamber, especially "talking to the media about the details."

    Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) missed Lott's announcement. He was upstairs at the Capitol reading his speech in favor of acquittal to a roomful of reporters.

    "I will take some questions later, but I've got to go down and give my statement in the Senate now," Harkin said, winding it up. "Thank you."

    "You're going to go read this now?" a reporter asked.

    "That's it, yes."

    The muddled state of affairs about who could say what and when confused senators all day yesterday, and they had only themselves to blame. Under the Senate's 19th-century impeachment rules, final deliberations must be secret – "under pain of imprisonment," as the sergeant at arms reminded the senators at the beginning of the session.

    Until yesterday, most of the Senate jurors had taken the admonition to heart and often got testy when asked even in general terms about what was going on behind closed doors.

    Then, the Senate voted Tuesday to allow individual senators to publish their closed door remarks in the Congressional Record after the final vote. Harkin immediately asked whether he could give his statement "in public and then give the same statement in closed session and still not violate the rule." Senate ethics committee Chairman Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) replied, "You have every right to release your statement."

    And so he did. By that time, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) had already issued a statement describing his speech from the previous day's secret session, saying he would vote "no" on whether to convict Clinton on perjury and "yes" on obstruction of justice.

    As the Senate resumed its deliberations early yesterday, Lott once again urged caution. "I don't think there's been any violation, but use a lot of discretion," he said. "I would prefer we not even talk about which senator spoke or how many spoke."

    Then Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) confessed, "I'm still a little confused." Could he submit a printed statement in closed session, instead of speaking, and then have it placed in the Congressional Record? Lott replied, "I think the answer to that is yes."

    Within a few hours of this interchange, half a dozen other senators joined Harkin in spilling the beans.

    There was Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), saying no on perjury and no on obstruction; James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), the first no-no Republican; Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), yes-yes; John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), no-no, and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), an emphatic no-no.

    Jeffords one-upped Harkin. He didn't announce his position in advance; instead he taped his statement in advance and CNN played it while he was debating Clinton's fate in secret.

    "To me . . . the most important aspect of the process right now [is] to ensure we do not set a bar so low that any future president would be liable for impeachment for just about anything," Jeffords told CNN.

    Then there was Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who said on national television: "Under Scottish law there are three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proved. And I intend to vote not proved as to both articles."

    "That is not to say that the president is not guilty," he added, "but to specifically say that the charges in my judgment have not been proved."

    In an attempt to clear up the confusion, Smith, the ethics chairman, tried again around midday. "We gave dispensation that you can say what you said, but you can't say what anybody else said without their permission," he said.

    The statements continued. And finally, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the last Democrat to speak before the deliberations recessed for the second day, told reporters that he, too, was a no-no on impeachment. He revealed his decision while waiting for a train in the Senate subway.

    "On both charges I found some of the House evidence to be incredible and some of it to be credible," said Lieberman, regarded as a crucial swing vote throughout the impeachment trial.

    Smith also was taking the subway to his office and acknowledged that the Senate's pronouncements on disclosure had provoked considerable confusion, even though he insisted that "It's quite simple."

    "Some members have gotten a little mixed up," he said. "I don't think it was done with intent. ... But if members are talking then they are violating the rules if they are talking about what they said." Harkin, he added, may have been "pushing the envelope."

    It may be ridiculous, suggested Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), but those are the rules. "Under the rules we're not supposed to say what we said, but we can say what we think."

    So what did he think? "I think it's been very constructive, very thoughtful."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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