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Senate Acquits Clinton; Censure Blocked

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 1999

Updated: 3:34 p.m. EST
The United States Senate acquitted William Jefferson Clinton on two articles of impeachment today in a pair of votes that spared him from being the first president ever removed from office and brought to a close an unprecedented chapter in the nation’s history.

Neither article garnered even a simple majority in the Republican-controlled Senate, much less the two-thirds necessary for conviction. Article I, alleging that Clinton committed perjury before a grand jury about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, was defeated on a 55 to 45 vote at 12:22 p.m EST. Within 15 minutes, the senators rejected Article II, charging the president with obstruction of justice, in a 50-to-50 tie at 12:37 p.m.

“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said William Jefferson Clinton be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the presiding officer, marking the finale of the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years.

With its adjournment as an impeachment court, the Senate then moved into legislative session to consider a nonbinding resolution censuring Clinton for his conduct, but its mostly Democratic sponsors failed to force a vote in the face of overwhelming procedural obstacles and Republican opposition.

Indeed, the day’s actions were so preordained that Senate staff members drafted a script to outline exactly what everyone would say at every stage, including the censure consideration. Aides included language for Rehnquist to read to announce acquittal, not even bothering to include what he should say in case the president were convicted.

At the White House, an apologetic Clinton asked the nation to leave the bitter impeachment and Senate trial proceedings behind and begin a period of "reconciliation and renewal."

"I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did that triggered these events," Clinton said in a brief Rose Garden statement.

Answering shouted questions about those who sought his removal, Clinton said, "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it."

In the end, the House Republican “managers” who brought the case against the president not only failed to force Clinton from power but could not even persuade all of their party brethren of the worthiness of their cause. The senators rose at their desks one by one calling out “guilty” or “not guilty” in the jam-packed chamber – some in a booming bass, others in a sober sigh. All 45 Democrats stuck by their president, while 10 Republicans voted against at least one of the articles and five opposed both of them.

Sens. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), John H. Chafee (R.I.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Susan M. Collins (Maine) were the five Republicans who voted for complete acquittal. Sens. Slade Gorton (Wash.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and John W. Warner (Va.) voted against the perjury article but for conviction on obstruction.

Collins announced her decision in the hours before the vote, dooming the obstruction article to less than a majority. While she said the president’s grand jury testimony was “replete with lies, half-truths and evasions,” it did not necessarily amount to perjury. As for obstruction, she said the House managers proved their case and added that if she were a juror in a criminal trial she “might very well vote to convict.”

But Clinton’s offenses, in her mind, did not rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” envisioned by the framers of the Constitution to justify removal.

“As much as it troubles me to acquit this president, I cannot do otherwise and remain true to my role as a senator,” she said. “To remove a popularly elected president for the first time in our nation’s history is an extraordinary action that should be undertaken only when the president’s misconduct so injures the fabric of democracy that the Senate is left with no option but to oust the offender from the office the people have entrusted to him.”

One of the few Democrats considered a possible defector when the trial began offered a similar explanation of his votes for acquittal. Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), the only Democrat who voted against a motion to dismiss the case after opening arguments, said the perjury charge relied too much on “frivolous” allegations, although regarding obstruction, “the president came perilously close to committing an impeachable offense.”

The Clinton case, he added, was the first close call on presidential impeachment in the nation’s history, falling between the weak case against Andrew Johnson, who was impeached but acquitted by a single vote in 1868, and the powerful case against Richard M. Nixon, who resigned in 1974 rather than face certain impeachment.

“This one,” said Feingold, “is a hard case and senators may see it either way.”

In an attempt to signal disapproval with Clinton even while leaving him in power, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and three dozen other senators from both sides of the aisle tried to force the Senate to pass a resolution of censure condemning him for “shameful, reckless and indefensible” conduct.

While not concluding that he committed specific crimes, the censure proposal circulated this morning concluded that Clinton gave “false or misleading testimony” and that his actions “had the effect of impeding discovery of evidence in judicial proceedings.” It also noted that he “remains subject to criminal actions in a court of law like any other citizen” and implored future Congresses not to rescind the resolution.

“Whereas William Jefferson Clinton through his conduct in this matter has violated the trust of the American people,” it said, “now therefore be it resolved that the United States Senate does hereby censure William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States, and does condemn his wrongful conduct in the strongest terms.”

Only one other president, Andrew Jackson, has been censured by the Senate, and that reprimand was later repealed when his allies recaptured control of the chamber. Although at least nine Republicans endorsed the Feinstein resolution, enough other Republicans opposed it to block it procedurally.

Censure opponents complained that it is unconstitutional and amounts to no more than a slap on the wrist of the president intended only as political cover for Democrats who do not want to appear to exonerate Clinton with their not-guilty votes. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) blocked consideration of the resolution with a procedural move in which censure advocates failed to win the two-thirds vote needed to proceed.

Having failed on the floor, Feinstein and other censure proponents plan to redraft their resolution in the form of a letter to the president, collect signatures from as many senators as they can and insert it into the Congressional Record.

The trial, the first of a president since Johnson’s, lasted five weeks and gave the country its first look at Lewinsky talking about her relationship with the president and their actions to hide it from public disclosure, although her debut was limited to videotaped cameo appearances out of senatorial fear of the spectacle that might ensue were she to testify in person from the well of the Senate chamber.

The trial cast 13 members from the House, all Republicans, in the unlikely role as prosecutors and, while several had experience of that type before their congressional careers, they themselves acknowledged being out-lawyered by the prominent attorneys assembled by the president to handle his defense.

Along with White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, a former Watergate prosecutor, Clinton had his longtime personal attorney, David E. Kendall, and recruited a law school classmate, Gregory B. Craig, who defended would-be presidential assassin John W. Hinckley Jr. and represented the Kennedy family.

The White House legal strategy in the Senate relied on a comprehensive and sustained defense of the president’s actions based on the facts, rather than the constitutional and political appeals that failed to avert impeachment in the House. By poking holes in the evidence assembled largely by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, the defense attorneys raised doubts among senators who otherwise might have been open to conviction.

The Senate’s decision grants Clinton 23 months to try to repair his badly damaged presidency and find a way to craft a legacy that will dull the bitter taste of scandal that will forever mar his place in the history books. White House aides plan an ambitious policy agenda focused on Social Security, health care and education in a bid to push through as many accomplishments as possible in the short window before the 2000 presidential election swamps Washington’s attention.

But whether the Democratic president and the Republican Congress will be able put aside the deep emotions generated by the Lewinsky crisis to forge a working relationship is the scandal's great remaining mystery. Many Republicans suspect Clinton will spend the remainder of his term trying to avenge his ordeal at their expense.

Moreover, while his constitutional threat has now dissipated, Starr still lurks in the background. The independent counsel could indict Clinton after he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2001, or perhaps even test the constitutional reach of his authority by trying to prosecute the president while he remains in power.

Several signs, though, suggest Starr will not take action against Clinton, at least until his term is done. Several of Starr’s most trusted lieutenants have left his office or are looking for new work. And legal experts note that an unprecedented attempt to indict a sitting president would result in lengthy litigation over its constitutionality, consuming much of the remainder of Clinton’s tenure.


© Copyright 1999 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive

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