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Senate GOP Moderates Go Own Way

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) share a laugh during a bipartisan news conference on Feb. 5. (AP)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A29

    When impeachment was in doubt in the House late last year, all eyes were riveted on Republican moderates, a small band of mavericks who sometimes hold the balance of power in closely fought battles. To the surprise of many, the moderates joined with conservatives in voting to impeach President Clinton.

    But in the Senate yesterday, the moderates went the other way, aligning themselves with Democrats to deny the GOP House "managers" even a symbolic victory in their effort to oust Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    With Clinton's acquittal a foregone conclusion because of the two-thirds majority requirement for conviction, it was the stronger obstruction charge that became a key test of whether Republicans could muster even a simple majority for removing Clinton from office. They failed because four New England moderates and one from Pennsylvania joined with the 45 Senate Democrats to produce a 50-50 vote and deny the House even that modest victory.

    Three of the moderates Sens. John Chafee (R.I.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) are up for reelection next year in states where Clinton enjoys substantial popularity. The two others were Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a former Philadelphia prosecutor with sometimes iconoclastic views, and freshman Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), a high-profile advocate for an alternative to impeachment.

    Their defection from the GOP camp was testimony to the character of the Senate, where partisan lines are less sharp than in the House. In contrast to the battle in the House, where GOP moderates were pressured by the GOP leadership to support impeachment simply to "keep the process going," moderates in the Senate felt no such pressure. There was no chance for the necessary 67 votes to convict Clinton, and so the Senate moderates, in effect, were given a pass by their leadership.

    "If there was a simple majority requirement for conviction, you can imagine the pressure that would be brought to bear on these five moderates," said Thomas Mann, a governmental affairs expert with the Brookings Institution. "But in this case they were freer to vote their states and probably their own personal predilections."

    The motivations of the GOP defectors yesterday were varied. Five other Republicans, mostly southern conservatives, joined with the moderates and Democrats in opposing the perjury charge, citing the porous nature of the managers' perjury case.

    But for the four New Englanders, their dissent from party orthodoxy was also rooted in part in the history and traditions of Republican politics in their region. It is a region that was once dominant in the party but has been pushed to the edges of influence by the rise of Republicans of a much more conservative bent in the South and West.

    Collins, the last to publicly declare her opposition to the two impeachment articles before the final votes, acknowledged that the managers offered compelling and persuasive evidence that Clinton had obstructed justice and tried to influence the testimony of witnesses. But she concluded that his misconduct did not meet the threshold tests justifying removal from office.

    "I judged that unless the misconduct threatened the very fabric of our democracy and undermined our institutions that I had to resolve those issues in favor of the president," Collins said.

    Garrison Nelson, visiting professor of political science at Brandeis University and senior fellow at the McCormack Institute in Boston, described New England Republicanism as "sort of libertarian" a philosophy that embraces economic conservatism but social liberalism.

    In the case of Jeffords, the first Republican to bolt, Nelson said Jeffords got "kind of a nudge" when Rep. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent, told the Boston Globe earlier in the week, before Jeffords's announcement, that he felt Jeffords "had become much too close to the Republican leadership."

    Jeffords is close to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has been good to him, but Sanders's message was "let's return to your previous maverick status and get off the Trent Lott bandwagon," Nelson said.

    The implication was that Sanders was considering a challenge to Jeffords in 2000 and "a race against Bernie Sanders would be a tough one," Nelson said. Now, he said, he thinks Sanders will be happy to remain in the House. Of Jeffords's anti-removal vote, Nelson said: "In Vermont it plays well. In Vermont, it's a winning issue."

    He also said that the White House was "fawning over" Jeffords and had made "a concerted effort to bring Jeffords along."

    On Chafee, Nelson noted that he represents a Democratic state where Clinton is very popular. In fact, Nelson said, this is true of all of New England. He said Clinton has been "the most successful Democratic presidential candidate in New England in this century," surpassing even Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Clinton carried Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania over Republican challenger Robert J. Dole in 1996.

    Nelson said none of the New Englanders should suffer from their votes, least of all Snowe, who is "enormously popular." Chafee, 76, is likely to face a primary challenge, largely because of his age, Nelson said.

    Publicly, at least, Chafee, Snowe and the other New England moderates said that their decisions were based primarily on flaws in the managers' case and not political concerns back home. "I found Clinton's popularity a zero factor in my decision," Chafee said.

    In assessing yesterday's votes, Democratic leaders insisted that the House managers simply failed to make their case while Republicans complained that the Democrats from the start had turned a deaf ear to the case.

    "I think the vote had more to do with the fact that there were 45 Democrats and 55 Republicans in the Senate than the strength of the managers' case," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "Some Republicans were willing to be bipartisan. It's clear that none of the Democrats were."

    "I would have liked for just one Democrat to have voted for impeachment," added Lott. "We had a constitutional duty to do it right, to do it fair, trying to make it as bipartisan as possible."

    Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview that "a lot" of Democrats were undecided about impeachment last December, before the trial began, and that it was far from certain they would be united in opposing the impeachment charges.

    "I think it was after more careful consideration and a lot of thoughtful study that they concluded that this matter didn't justify [conviction]", he said. "I didn't ask one person to vote in any particular fashion. That was left to each of them."

    The House managers who prosecuted the case have complained that they were hamstrung in presenting their case by Senate rules that restricted to three the number of witnesses that could be deposed and that prevented them from calling Monica S. Lewinsky, their star witness, to testify on the Senate floor. But Democrats and the GOP defectors said there were too many holes in case and that the managers too often resorted to inferences that were contradicted by grand jury testimony.

    Ironically, the perjury charge, which was considered the strongest in the House, was almost universally condemned as the weaker of the two articles in the Senate, and drew as much opposition from GOP conservatives as moderates.

    Conservative Republican Sens. Slade Gorton (Wash.), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and John W. Warner (Va.) joined with moderates and Democrats in rejecting the perjury charge, which failed on a vote of 45 to 55.

    "I don't believe that they proved to my satisfaction that the president lied to the grand jury," Shelby said. "I think he went to the grand jury with every intention of not lying. Maybe he walked right up to the line. Some people said he crossed the line, but that wasn't my feeling."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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