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The Train That Wouldn't Stop

Clinton Acquitted

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  • Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page A1

    This article was reported and written by staff writers Peter Baker, Juliet Eilperin, Guy Gugliotta, John F. Harris, Dan Morgan, Eric Pianin and David Von Drehle.

    The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton was a huge, slow-moving locomotive rolling down antique but sturdy iron rails laid by the Constitution.

    Its ultimate destination was hardly ever in doubt; even Republicans assumed Clinton would survive. Yet the train rolled on for more than five months, from Sept. 9, 1998, when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his report to Congress, until last Friday, when the Senate voted to acquit President Clinton of the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    There were moments, especially early on, when some bold leader might have seized control and pulled the brake. Moments when compromise seemed possible. But like much in politics, the drive to remove the president was kept in motion by a committed few who cared enough to push. Led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), they dominated the process, even as their single-mindedness helped seal their defeat.

    Relentless and tragicomic, the impeachment drama will be remembered as an extraordinary chapter in American political history. Polls have suggested a public angered and disillusioned by the events, which seemed cut off from the fabric of ordinary human concerns. But the engine of impeachment carried real people along -- humans sometimes bold, sometimes fearful -- who took risks, miscalculated, cut deals and broke them, gambled and won or gambled and lost. This account of the story's crucial moments is based on dozens of interviews with key players and eyewitnesses.

    CHAPTER 1: The Starr Report


    It's hard to believe now, more than five bitter months later, but the story began with a stab at bipartisanship. Easier to believe is how quickly the attempt came to a bad end.

    At 9 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1998, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) held a rare meeting with his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). They convened in the "Dinosaur Room" at the end of a red-carpeted hallway on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol. Gingrich had never lost his boyhood fascination with paleontology, and when the House GOP swept to power in 1995, he decorated one of his offices with the spectacular skull of a tyrannosaurus rex.

    Joining the leaders were the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, Reps. Hyde and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). The topic: what to do when independent counsel Starr sent the House his report, officially known as a "referral," alleging impeachable conduct by the president to cover up his dalliance with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

    What the participants did not know was that the arrival of the 453-page report, accompanied by 18 boxes of supplemental material, was just seven hours away.

    Gingrich, the exuberant conservative, and Gephardt, the careful, telegenic pro-laborite from St. Louis, had an icy relationship. There was no personal chemistry and only infrequent communication between the two. They had little in common beyond presidential ambitions; and even these, for different reasons, would be discarded before long.

    The Starr report had worried Gingrich for months. At one point, early in the Lewinsky hubbub, he had suggested creating a select committee to respond to Starr's findings, on the theory that such a group could focus a few handpicked members of Congress -- rather than the highly partisan Judiciary Committee -- on a web of pending scandals: the Whitewater land deals, the White House travel office, campaign finance. But the plan was stillborn. Gingrich had asked junior Judiciary Republican James E. Rogan (Calif.) to study the impeachment process, and Rogan recommended that the House follow "regular order" and let the Judiciary Committee handle it.

    Indeed, by Sept. 9, as Hyde recalled later, "I was totally in charge. Newt didn't interfere." Only once, according to Republican leadership sources, did Hyde even ask Gingrich's opinion, when he offered to resign after Salon, an online magazine, published a story about a long-ended adulterous affair of Hyde's. Gingrich urged him to stay.

    As they met that morning to decide what to do when the report landed, Hyde suggested that he and Conyers jointly review it before deciding what should be made public. Gingrich at first resisted, advocating instead that it should be released as soon as possible. Gephardt joined Hyde, saying the report should be screened for salacious and extraneous material. Eventually, Gingrich agreed. It sounded like a deal.

    After the meeting, Gingrich went to the Library of Congress for a leadership retreat, and was "locked down all day" incommunicado, according to a leadership source. By the time he emerged that afternoon, two government vans, live television cameras following them all the way, had already carried the boxes from Starr's Pennsylvania Avenue office and unloaded them at the Capitol. The House Rules Committee was preparing a resolution to release everything as quickly as possible, sight unseen.

    Suddenly, it seemed, there was no deal.

    Some Democrats thought Gingrich wanted bipartisanship but could not pull it off. Gephardt, whose distrust of Gingrich knew no bounds, was not as generous. The flip-flop simply confirmed that impeachment "was partisan from the get-go," he said later. Democrats suspected a plot hatched by Judiciary Committee hard-liners while the speaker was locked away.

    But the switch had more mundane, and accidental, origins. For it happened that afternoon that House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), a bluff back-slapper given to sudden rages, overheard Judiciary Committee Democrat Barney Frank (Mass.) criticizing the Hyde plan to reporters.

    He was irate. "We weren't about to be subjected to that," Solomon recalled later. "If they were going to be that way, let it all come out." On the spot he decided to draft a resolution to publish the report immediately. Few Democrats were willing to oppose it, and the resolution passed in the House by a large majority.

    The trust between leaders of both parties -- the lubricant of the legislature -- was already poisoned.

    CHAPTER 2: The Grand Jury Video


    From the early days of the scandal, Clinton's senior advisers knew where the real danger lay. As one of them told the president, "You'll never be run out of office by the Republicans, but you might be by the Democrats."

    And many congressional Democrats were angry, indeed disgusted, by their president. The feeling had deepened after Aug. 17, when Clinton appeared before Starr's grand jury and confessed a relationship with Lewinsky. He followed up with a speech to the nation that was short on contrition and long on Starr-bashing. Party leaders feared the scandal could destroy whatever chance they had to hold their own in the November midterm elections.

    On the day before the Starr report arrived on Capitol Hill, Clinton held a series of meetings with House and Senate Democratic leaders in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence. A range of emotions was on display, from blunt expressions of anger to anxious talk about elections. Despite fractious relations with Gephardt, aides concluded from the meetings, Clinton was in better shape in the House than in the Senate, where one leader after another let Clinton have it.

    But they also believed that even the intense anger of Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) -- who together with Gephardt has signed a statement publicly warning Clinton against legal hair-splitting -- would probably not lead to a political revolt, provided matters got no worse. "This thing was dicey in early September," recalled Clinton adviser James Carville.

    White House anxiety peaked a few days after the Starr report was publicly released, when it became clear the House Judiciary Committee would also release the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony. But which way would it cut? America loves video -- televised images are the juice of national politics -- and the president's testimony seemed sure to be a turning point in the impeachment story. Republicans shared Starr's view that the video was concrete proof of felonious perjury.

    Indeed, several members of Clinton's inner circle conjured apocalyptic visions of a "Democratic landslide" plunging Clinton into the abyss. "We were very wobbly then," said one.

    On the other hand, the broadcast of the tape -- following the Republican-forced decision to release the Starr report unscreened -- could give more ammunition to the White House in its campaign to blame everything on a partisan lynch mob.

    This had been the strategy from the beginning. House Democrats and White House strategists had decided early on that House Republicans were so bent on "getting" Clinton that they might be coaxed into disastrous tactical mistakes. So the president's supporters had begun making reasonable-sounding requests, counting on the House Republicans to turn them down.

    Gephardt had asked that Clinton's lawyers be given 72 hours to examine the Starr report before it was released to the public. Republicans refused. "They should've said, 'Sure! Take 96!' " recalled Carville. "But everyone kept telling us: 'Look, they're addicted to power, they won't give you anything, so just keep asking.' "

    What the president actually said on the videotape was largely unknown -- at least to aides in the White House, where anxiety was recycled by news reports that Clinton had exploded in anger, disclosures recirculated by pundits until it catalyzed into a sense of panic. In retrospect, Judiciary Committee Republicans who had seen the tape in private, like Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah), credited "the Democrats and the White House" with "a marvelous job of overhyping" the videotape, and maintained that "a lot of us realized that the tape was very long and boring. It wasn't like we were dying to play it."

    The tape was a bust. Clinton answered the questions asked, threw no tantrums and showed a relentless ability to fence with the prosecutors. Instead of the abyss, Clinton's poll ratings shot up.

    "I was personally stunned," said Cannon. People focused "not on the meaning of the word 'is,' " but "instead on 'I like this guy!'"

    CHAPTER 3: House Votes for Open-Ended Impeachment Inquiry


    On Oct. 8, the House voted 258 to 176 to hold an open-ended inquiry into whether the president should be impeached over a wide range of alleged misdeeds extending far beyond the Lewinsky matter. Although 31 Democrats joined the majority, the plan was strictly Republican. Both parties in the House would come to see the moment as a crucial lost opportunity to find common ground on impeachment. The White House would see it as a godsend.

    There had been little chance from the start that the parties would reach agreement on how to proceed.

    The Judiciary Committee -- which was to carry out the inquiry -- was badly divided, one of the most ideologically polarized panels in the entire Congress. Among the Democrats were five African Americans, most of whom saw impeachment as an unjust assault on the first president with whom they had ever identified. Six members were Jewish, including some of the House's most unabashed liberals. All could be counted on to resist tirelessly on Republican issues such as abortion restrictions.

    The committee Republicans were just as tough. They were led by Hyde, 74, a large, gregarious white-haired man, quick with a joke, respected for his fairness but fiercely partisan at the same time, and implacably dogmatic when he felt he was right. Many of the other Republicans were no-nonsense conservatives as interested in tough law enforcement as the Democrats were interested in gun control.

    Gingrich and Gephardt, the two party leaders, were similarly polarized. When it had come time to launch the inquiry, Gingrich had wanted a wide-ranging charter to pull in every possible whiff of Clinton-related scandal -- from Whitewater to China policy -- while Gephardt was determined to limit the scope.

    The Democrats had asked for an accommodation, their most daring request yet. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) wrote the proposal, with help from Gephardt's office, authorizing an inquiry limited to the charges referred by Starr that would be completed by the end of the year.

    At the White House, Clinton aides had been terrified that Gingrich and Hyde would accept the limited Democratic model, fearing it could create a bipartisan impeachment process that would completely blunt the best weapon they had: the charge that Republicans were out to get the president. Even some committee Democrats "were scared to death," according to minority counsel Julian Epstein.

    Gephardt and the drafting team sold the alternative to the Democratic caucus in a series of meetings spread over three days.

    When Carville got wind of it, he called Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel and shouted: "You're crazy!" "I just knew Gingrich would come down to the well and give a speech about the interests of the nation and bipartisanship and take the deal," Carville recalled. "But the House Democrats kept telling us those guys were completely crazy, and they'd never agree to anything we proposed."

    And they were right. On the day the Republican plan was approved, the Democratic alternative went down 236 to 198.

    In retrospect, several Judiciary Committee Republicans realized they had blown it. "The stronger the foundation you give to the process the better, and the more credibility," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). But Gingrich had missed the opening.

    Amazingly, Hyde made it clear almost immediately after the vote that he intended to shut down the inquiry by year's end, just as the Democrats had proposed. And the inquiry never went beyond the Starr referral.

    CHAPTER 4: The Election


    The midterm elections were only a few weeks away, and the situation, in Gephardt's view, was "very grim." The idea of picking up strength seemed impossible; instead, the news was nothing but impeachment and Republicans were predicting gains in the House of 30 to 40 seats.

    But again there was this: Clinton's poll numbers had risen to the stratosphere. So the Democrats embraced the desperation option. They would make the scandal into a plus. Republicans would be attacked as impeachment-obsessed, in contrast with a president who was doing the business of government.

    A budget deal unexpectedly cemented the plan. Saddled with an unpopular impeachment, House Republicans were afraid of another government shutdown, a fact the White House used to drive through a deal. Congress left town in mid-October for a truncated campaign season. Then, a week before the election, the White House announced that there would be a $70 billion federal budget surplus, the first in a generation.

    On Oct. 27, the GOP counterattacked, airing millions of dollars in ads, endorsed by Gingrich, attacking the president's moral flaws. And while some Democratic strategists believed the campaign was a major GOP blunder, the House minority leader didn't agree.

    "I really thought the ads could hurt us," Gephardt recalled later. "I thought [the Republicans] were running an effective campaign and that we were going to get hurt."

    Instead, Republicans lost five House seats, leaving them with a tenuous hold on the majority in the next Congress. In the Senate, the GOP just held its own while losing important races in California and New York. Exit polls showed two-thirds of voters opposing impeachment.

    The debacle cost Gingrich the speakership, but in a bizarre twist, actually strengthened the drive to impeachment. With Gingrich gone, there was a vacuum of leadership that was filled by impeachment hard-liners, like Hyde and House Majority Whip DeLay.

    At the same time, the White House and delirious Democrats assumed that impeachment was now over. The way was clear, Gephardt and others figured, for a graceful exit culminating in a congressional censure of the president. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) was the GOP choice to succeed Gingrich, and at first the lanky Appropriations Committee chairman struck Gephardt as being open to a deal. When the two leaders met following the November election, according to Gephardt, Livingston said something to the effect of, "This is not a big deal. This is pretty straightforward."

    Livingston, who declined to be interviewed, suggested that the GOP impeachment resolution be put up to a vote, followed by a Democratic alternative that would censure the president. "We'll debate it and then we'll vote and get on with it," Gephardt recalls Livingston telling him.

    But in this lame-duck period, Livingston was not yet speaker, and he seems to have considered impeachment to be Gingrich's problem more than his own. "I didn't know who was in charge," Gephardt recalled.

    Meanwhile, House Judiciary Republicans were hardening their resolve to proceed with impeachment, election results be damned. With no leadership in place, they were left to their own devices. It was, as one committee member put it, like leaving "kids alone in a doughnut shop."

    At a meeting shortly after the election, according to lawmakers and staff, Judiciary Committee Republicans mulled over their options. A few members were dispirited, but committee counsel David Schippers and Rogan, Gingrich's impeachment expert, stiffened their spines with lectures on constitutional duty.

    "By the time we left that room, the whole attitude was, 'We don't care what the polls say,' " Schippers recalled. "From that point on they presented a united front."

    "We had just been hammered for doing the right thing. What do we do now?" said Cannon of Utah, a young, brash committee hard-liner. "We have to vindicate the rule of law."

    CHAPTER 5: The 81 Questions


    Partisan rancor was in full, ugly bloom by the time the Judiciary Committee opened impeachment hearings on Nov. 19. The first witness: independent counsel Starr, whose approval ratings were as low as Clinton's were high. For 13 hours -- first in a lengthy statement and then in answers to questions long into the night -- he made clear he saw his role as an advocate for impeachment, not as a mere finder of facts. When he finished, committee Republicans led by Hyde rose in standing ovation.

    But in spite of that, things looked pretty good to the White House. The polls were rosy, the election emphatic. After Election Day, moderate Republicans sympathetic to Clinton had recommended a low-key approach by the president's defenders. They predicted that impeachment would sink of its own weight.

    As a result, the president had done little to reach out to undecided House members. The strategy seemed to be working when Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.) -- a rich and liberal Republican of the old Rockefeller tradition -- announced he would vote against impeachment. Houghton, Clinton's team believed, would bring along enough moderates to kill impeachment.

    But there was a minefield ahead: an 81-point questionnaire the Judiciary Committee had sent to Clinton two days after the election. It was one tricky exam. Strictly candid answers could expose Clinton as a liar and worse, careful legalistic answers from the president were wearing thin on the nation's nerves. House Republicans anticipated that the answers, when and if they came, would be cautious, and would perhaps irritate the moderates who might otherwise move toward Clinton.

    The answers, when they finally arrived on Nov. 30, worked like a charm for the impeachment hawks. Prepared by Clinton's private attorneys, they were highly technical and, in the view of many moderates, smacked of arrogance. Apparently the president -- who, on the very day the answers were delivered, enjoyed a round of golf and a cigar -- had yet to truly accept responsibility for his actions.

    Question One set the tone. Clinton was asked to confirm that the president is the nation's chief law enforcement officer. The president often is called that, Clinton answered, but "nothing in the Constitution specifically designates the president as such."

    DeLay and his deputy whips fanned the resentment of the moderates, and also moved to block any chance of a censure resolution as a substitute for impeachment. Backed by staff research into floor procedures for impeachment, he asserted that such a resolution could be offered only with the majority's approval, and he had no intention of giving the Democrats that carrot for wavering Republicans.

    Judiciary Committee hard-liners were also putting pressure on undecided colleagues. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a pugnacious impeachment advocate, spoke at a GOP conference meeting and urged members to study sealed material in the Gerald R. Ford Building. There they would find explosive, if unsubstantiated, 20-year-old allegations of an assault by Clinton on an Arkansas woman.

    DeLay seconded Buyer, citing the "sheer volume of evidence that had not become public." Later, he would agree that his comments had moved important swing votes. "It just confirmed what their conscience was telling them in the first place," he said.

    So it was that Houghton did not lead a parade of moderates to the president's camp. Not even Houghton's fellow New Yorkers were coming over; in fact, one Buffalo Republican who had opposed impeachment suddenly shifted to favor it.

    The 81 questions continued to reverberate. When White House lawyers were given two days to argue before the committee, they steered away from a legalistic defense. Instead, special counsel Gregory Craig said that Clinton's extramarital relationship with Lewinsky was "sinful," but not impeachable.

    Unmoved, the committee voted four articles of impeachment, charging Clinton with obstruction of justice, abuse of power and two counts of perjury. As soon as the voting was done, Speaker-designee Livingston announced that he would block any censure motion.

    For moderate Republicans, that was the final blow. Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who often breaks ranks with the leadership on environmental issues, said the lack of a vehicle for expressing strong disapproval posed a dilemma. "We had a choice between voting for one or more articles of impeachment or voting for nothing," Boehlert said. "Voting for nothing wasn't acceptable."

    CHAPTER 6: To the Senate


    On an amazing, frantic, almost lunatic Saturday -- Dec. 19, 1998 -- President Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    The day started with jeers and hooting on the floor of the House, but the noise went silent when Livingston -- who only two days before had confessed to marital infidelity -- abruptly announced that he would resign and called on Clinton to do the same. Then came an appearance by the president on the White House South Lawn, surrounded by the House Democrats who had supported him. The day ended with Clinton back on television, discussing U.S. missile attacks on Iraq.

    Lott watched the spectacle and made himself a promise: The Senate would not follow the House into chaos. That promise was the beginning of nearly two months on a tightrope.

    Truth be told, Lott had hoped impeachment would never be his problem, that the House would find a way to stop the train. But now it was coming, and unlike Richard M. Nixon, Clinton was never going to resign. That was the message of "the pep rally" -- as angry Republicans would later describe it -- on the South Lawn.

    If Clinton would not resign, Lott immediately realized, chances were just about zero that he would be forced from office. House Republicans could bull forward because they had all the votes they needed. In the Senate, where a two-thirds majority was required to convict, Democrats now controlled the outcome.

    So far, moreover, most of the casualties of impeachment were Republicans. Gingrich: gone. Livingston: gone. GOP poll ratings: falling. Lott was determined not to be next. "I'm in the eye of the storm here," a Lott adviser recalls him saying, "and I've got to figure out a way through this."

    Though he did not know exactly where he was going, he had a strategy for getting there. "First, he took a position that he was not going to be out front on this," the Lott adviser explained. "He would work through other senators to make proposals, and see what coalesced."

    From the start, Lott wanted the very shortest impeachment trial he could get. On the other hand, he knew that once the trial was over, it would be essential for Republicans in the House and Senate to get together quickly on an agenda to sell to the voters in 2000. He also had to show the House impeachment managers some respect.

    The situation was terribly complicated, Lott felt, more complicated than even veteran politicians understood. Lott was furious when, in the wake of the House vote, his predecessor as majority leader, Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), published an op-ed article in the New York Times laying out a simple way to short-circuit the trial. "I wish you'd call me" when you have suggestions, Lott scolded Dole.

    Even as Impeachment Day played out, Lott began working the telephone at his home on the Gulf Coast in Pascagoula. One of his earliest calls was to Daschle, the soft-spoken South Dakotan with a steely edge who led the Democratic minority in the Senate. In September, Daschle had been livid at Clinton, dressing the president down during a meeting in the White House. Faced with impeachment, however, Daschle was determined to save Clinton's presidency.

    Lott told Daschle that "the only way we're going to get through this is to stay in close communication," Lott recalled, and the two leaders agreed to try to speak daily. Meanwhile, Lott started phoning Republicans; by New Year's, he would speak in some detail with more than half of his 54 GOP colleagues. Daschle called every one of his 44 fellow Democrats, rallying an often-fractious caucus to unity.

    Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) was one of Lott's "cat's paws" in the Senate -- a friend he could trust to test the winds and pass information -- and one of the first senators to get serious about impeachment. When the newly elected Republican conference had met for the first time, early in December, there had been scarcely any mention of the freight train rolling toward them -- Gorton thought his colleagues were "in denial."

    And so, on Dec. 7 -- as he flew with his family to a vacation in Hawaii -- he picked up the Airfone and called Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). They were two moderates from different parties, and they were friends. Over the next three weeks, they talked by phone and sent memos back and forth, crafting a proposal to bring the impeachment to a rapid end.

    Lott wasn't going to get out front, but he urged them on from the wings. Two days after the impeachment vote, Lott called Lieberman to say, "I think you know that Slade Gorton and I are very close," which Lieberman understood to be the leader's seal of approval on their negotiations.

    By Christmas, the outlines of a Gorton-Lieberman plan were beginning to emerge. The trial would open with presentations by each side, each lasting perhaps a day, followed by a day of questions from the senators. Then there would be a test vote: If the facts alleged by the House are true, should the president be removed? If that test failed to gather two-thirds of the votes, the Senate would quickly end the trial and move to censure Clinton.

    Lott liked the idea so much he bent his rule about keeping a low profile. When outlines of the plan leaked to the press, he didn't correct reporters who called it the "Lott-Lieberman" plan.

    But House managers -- and Republican senators such as Phil Gramm (Tex.) and Spencer Abraham (Mich.) -- erupted over the plan to "short-circuit" the trial. One senator was steamed enough to track Lott to his seat in the Cotton Bowl, where he was watching Mississippi State play Texas on New Year's Day.

    Clearly, it would be impossible to get the unanimous consent necessary to make Gorton-Lieberman the Senate's impeachment road map. As the holiday recess ended, Lott headed back to Washington with no idea exactly what would happen next.

    CHAPTER 7: The Trial Begins


    The Democrats had the votes to save Clinton, they just had to hang onto them. And so at the White House, Chief of Staff John D. Podesta decided "to absolutely put our fate in the hands of Tom Daschle." Whatever the minority leader wanted, that was it. Daschle suggested a sober, respectful approach by White House lawyers aimed at keeping three influential and free-thinking Democrats in line: Lieberman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.).

    Lott had the power on everything else -- the shape and texture of the trial in every detail. But he wanted to escape the tar of partisanship. "We could have rolled" Daschle, the majority leader said, "but it would hurt the overall atmosphere." For the sake of the Senate's reputation, both men decided to keep things relatively cordial. They opened up a direct phone line connecting their offices.

    The leaders met on their first day back in Washington -- Tuesday, Jan. 5 -- in Lott's Senate hideaway. Each one brought four deputies to discuss Lott's dilemma: How could they conduct the trial that the Constitution, and the House Republicans, demanded, but in the briefest, least explosive way?

    In an ordinary trial, one senator offered, the judge calls a pretrial conference and decides what each side reasonably needs to present its case. The others jumped at the idea. A group of six senators was chosen to meet with the lawyers the next day.

    Lott's three Republican emissaries formed a masterpiece of legislative semaphore. There was Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee. A tough negotiator with his hands on the purse strings, there was no one the House Republicans would find more intimidating. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.), chairman of the Budget Committee, was also crusty and immovable. The third, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), wore a halo of credibility when it came to impeachment. He had launched his career as a staff lawyer for the Senate select committee investigating Watergate.

    The signals were clear: the Senate would dictate terms. They were delivering rules, not soliciting advice. And any rebellion could spell trouble when these same House members came seeking money for pet projects back home.

    The House managers wanted to put on a classic "Judgment at Nuremberg"-type trial, 20 or more witnesses, from Lewinsky and presidential secretary Betty Currie to various experts on perjury and the meaning of impeachment. In recent days, though, they had been hearing from a number of Republican senators -- Arlen Specter (Pa.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), James M. Inhofe (Okla.) and others -- that they "had better go light on the witnesses," in the words of one manager. Some senators were more sympathetic than others -- Gramm of Texas commiserated over the senselessness of it all -- but everyone carried the same message.

    But how "light on witnesses" were the managers supposed to go? Instead of 25, the managers asked for 18.

    Stevens erupted. "Iraqi MiGs scrambled today. There have been troop movements in Korea. The Brazilian economy is in grave danger. We don't have time for so many," one senator recalls him saying.

    Lieberman followed up. He had spent too much time complaining about sex on television to allow Lewinsky to recount smutty encounters in the well of the Senate.

    "Let's be honest about this," Domenici added. "Nobody in the Senate thinks there are 67 votes for conviction, so let's talk practically about how we're going to wrap this matter up." The managers were stunned by such a definitive assessment from Lott's chosen messenger. "I believe that every manager believes that we could have gotten 12 Democratic votes" -- enough to win -- "if we had had the opportunity to present our case," Rep. Cannon said later.

    When the senators had left, the managers boiled over. Cannon and others urged dramatic action. The managers should reject the instruction to pare down their case. They should walk out of the trial. Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) took a more stoic approach: This was the Senate's ballgame, and they should do the best they could under the rules they were given.

    From their meeting with the managers, the six senators went next to Stevens's office where they met the president's lawyers. By now it was close to 9 p.m. There was pizza; wine was served.

    White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff explained quietly, but with obvious menace, what he would do if the House managers were permitted to call witnesses. He would have to call his own -- lots of them. And of course the Senate Republicans could not possibly deny the president the right to defend himself.

    "Oh, come on," Stevens shot back, according senators who were there. "You know as well as we do that there aren't the votes to convict." Don't bother with an elaborate defense, just make your case and call for a vote.

    Two days later -- despite one "near-death experience" after another, as Lott put it -- the Senate agreed unanimously, after a rare bipartisan caucus, to start the trial with up to 24 hours of presentations by each side. They would push back to later the one issue that was sure to divide them: whether to dismiss the case or allow a limited number of witnesses.

    Lott went personally to give the House managers the news. Again, they were furious. The 24 hours of presentations "would allow the Senate to call the proceeding a trial," manager Cannon recalled Lott saying. But it wouldn't be real, the managers felt.

    At the White House, the unanimous vote caused anxiety -- could it be the first crack in the wall of Democratic loyalty? They shouldn't have been concerned. In the interests of future relations with the House he might use his majority leverage to allow a few witnesses, but Lott had already decided the trial would end by Feb. 12. And he already knew how the final vote on impeachment would turn out.

    "I knew, I could have told you, what this vote was going to be January the 7th," Lott said after the trial was over.

    "You could have predicted the exact splits?" he was asked.

    "Oh, yeah. Every one of them."

    CHAPTER 8: Endgame


    But just because Lott knew how it would end did not mean it was an easy transit. The frustrations of trying to satisfy Senate GOP colleagues, while preventing the Democrats from blowing things up -- and all the time keeping the lid on the seething resentments of the House managers -- finally broke through one afternoon.

    He just "let loose," recalled Gorton, and began railing against those who were frustrating his endgame. "Then he stopped and sighed," Gorton said: " 'Haaah . . . got that off my chest.' "

    And then Lott carried on as before: affable, unruffled and buttoned down.

    From the beginning, the trial had been dominated by the question of witnesses on the Senate floor. Lott was trying to serve three masters: the managers, with their grand designs on witnesses; his Republican colleagues, who were willing to countenance just three or four; and the Democrats, who wanted none.

    On Friday, Jan. 22, Byrd, the informal Senate historian and respected voice on constitutional matters, suddenly complicated things even more by moving to dismiss the case on grounds that "the nation is sorely in need of leadership and healing."

    For the White House, this seemed a dream come true. Byrd, guardian of Senate protocol and tradition, was a quirky and unpredictable man with immense influence among his colleagues on constitutional matters. Clinton aides had kept a low profile during the trial, in part to avoid angering Byrd.

    But now he was on Clinton's side, and White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer passed a note to his colleagues at the defense table, saying something like: "Don't smile, don't gloat, it's over."

    Not yet.

    In fact, for those who sided with the House managers, Byrd's move was seen as reckless and terribly irresponsible. Gramm called the dismissal motion a "disastrous precedent," and hardened his resolve to help the managers in their quest for witnesses.

    But it was a hard road. Gramm knew from the start there was no chance for conviction. Still, "part of my role was to encourage [the managers], to remind them in the low moments that they had a constitutional duty," he said.

    There were plenty of low moments. During one argument over witnesses Reps. Cannon and Rogan had even suggested walking out on the trial in protest. "The phrase, I think, was 'let's take our marbles and go home,' " one manager recalled.

    But in the end, they agreed to do what their senatorial advisers said was possible: ask to depose only three witnesses: Lewinsky, presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

    On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the Senate on a party line voted to subpoena the three and to dismiss Byrd's motion. Only Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) voted with the GOP.

    Now Lott was at a dangerous crossroads. His party had the votes to ram through a procedure for completing the trial, but one pair of partisan votes was enough for Lott. He had come too far to let the trial sink into the same rancorous morass that had dominated the House proceedings.

    Democrats sought to prevent live testimony or videotaped depositions, while the GOP side was adamant that the wishes of the House managers not be completely ignored.

    For 24 hours, through Lott's brief snit and beyond, staffs and senators tried to find a formula that would please everyone.

    While he never quite made it, the solution was good enough to satisfy Republicans and keep the Democrats at bay. There would be videotaped depositions, and the videotapes could be used by the managers and the White House in final summations. In the face of significant opposition from senators of both parties, there would be no live witnesses.

    From that moment, the goal was in sight.

    The prospect of imminent acquittal piqued interest among senators of both parties for some sort of official rebuke. Some Republicans favored a "finding of fact," recording Clinton's misdeeds as part of the official trial record, but the proposal died for lack of support. Democrats and a few Republicans favored a post-trial censure, but many Republicans regarded it as a meaningless "Band-Aid" for Democrats to use in justifying an acquittal vote.

    But as the trial lurched to a finish during four days of closed-door deliberations, the supplementary seemed to fall away before the constitutional imperative itself. In the end, just as at the beginning, "regular order" carried the day. At 12:39 p.m. Friday, after two roll calls in which the Senate voted 55 to 45 and 50 to 50 for acquittal, and the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years was history.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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