As Daschle recalls, Lott said he was “mortified” by the hyper-partisanship in the House and wanted to make sure the Senate emerged with its integrity intact.
What transpired over the next two months was a slow, methodical negotiation over how to hold the first presidential impeachment trial since 1868, setting precedents that could reverberate into another Senate trial should the House vote out articles later this year against President Trump.
The process that the two Senate leaders came up with won praise from other senators and allowed those involved to still come away with their dignity. Yet, in some ways, the outcome came to symbolize the political divide that has come to characterize the ensuing two decades: a 50-to-50 tie.
Lott and Daschle left the Senate more than a decade ago and have gone on to great fortunes, helping run multiple lobbying practices over the years. But they look back at their stewardship of the Senate during impeachment as a moment that helped cool the partisan tension of the moment.
Lott’s remarks came in an interview Monday with The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim, while Daschle’s came in a brief interview this week and also during an extensive interview last year about the state of congressional dysfunction.
In August 2018, months before Democrats had won back the House majority and Trump’s impeachment was even possible, Daschle pointed to how he and Lott handled the impeachment saga, unprompted.
“We look back with great pride at how that process ultimately worked itself out,” Daschle said.
Both former Senate leaders fear that today’s Congress might serve only to more deeply inflame the political clashes that now dominate.
“The landscape has changed significantly in the last 20 years,” Daschle said this week.
Cable news outlets, which focused mostly on crime stories in the 1990s, have fixated almost entirely on politics, and they’re increasingly taking sides in their coverage. Daschle cited social media’s rise as adding to a “polarization” that makes the Lott-Daschle era feel like a 1950s TV show.
“It’s less functional, more polarized and far less civil,” he said of today’s Senate.
Lott hopes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) can forge a similar pact if they oversee a trial.
“They should,” he said. “But it will depend on the willingness of both sides to do that.”
In 1998, after the story broke about the coverup of Clinton’s extramarital affair, an independent-counsel investigation riveted Washington. Despite the eventual Senate acquittal, many Democrats questioned whether the president should just resign.
“We woke up worried and we went to bed worried,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff who served as a top Clinton adviser until late 1998.
When Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made the push for impeachment, the House held a formal vote to begin the inquiry and 31 Democrats joined all 227 Republicans in support.
The November 1998 midterms turned into a referendum on Clinton, and the still-popular president prevailed: Democrats picked up seats in the House, the first time a president’s party had done so in a second midterm since the 19th century.
But Republicans still held the majority, and by Dec. 19 the House approved the two articles, sending the impeachment to a trial in the Senate — where anything short of a 67-vote supermajority meant acquittal for Clinton.
Daschle says it was not as much of a slam dunk as it is now portrayed. “In the early days, that possibility of conviction was there,” he said. “You had a lot of Democrats privately expressing concern and uncertainty about how they would vote.”
Working off a 1986 memo, Senate leaders had to figure out how to conduct a trial, how long it should last, how much time to give to the House GOP impeachment managers to present their case, how much to give to Clinton’s defense team.
At one point Lott thought he had a deal for a two-week trial, until he presented the idea to the GOP caucus.
“They did all but stone me and throw me out of the hall,” he said.
Eventually, all 100 senators convened in the Old Senate Chamber for a closed-door discussion of how to handle the process, when the leading liberal, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and a top conservative, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), agreed to a process that turned into a roughly five-week proceeding.
The trial would begin at 1 p.m. every day — leaving the morning for any legislation to consider — and if matters went past 6 p.m., the doors were closed and TV cameras turned off.
Senators could submit only handwritten questions, which were delivered by pages to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who oversaw the trial and who read questions to the prosecutors or the defense team.
When both sides concluded presenting their case, the Senate defeated a motion to dismiss the charges altogether. Senators then began days of mostly private deliberations that some said were raw, emotional moments.
“It got so emotional on a couple cases that people broke down expressing themselves about their own experiences,” Daschle said.
Finally, on Feb. 12, the Senate voted down the first article, alleging perjury by Clinton, in a 55-to-45 roll call, and the second, alleging obstruction of justice, ended on the 50-to-50 vote. Five Republicans sided with 45 Democrats on rejecting that impeachment article.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) rounded up 56 votes to consider instead a resolution censuring Clinton, a formal rebuke that would have left him in office. But it too failed, because it needed a two-thirds majority for passage.
The matter ended. And in a fashion that seems impossible today, everyone just went about their business.
“We voted on articles of impeachment on a Friday,” Lott said, noting that Clinton called him a few days later to discuss pending legislation. “Never mentioned the impeachment trial.”