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  A Byrd That Directly Hit the Mark

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A12

The air went out of the impeachment balloon about 3:15 p.m., according to the big stone clock over the Senate chamber's main door. There was a rustle in the press gallery. Someone was handing out copies of a one-page press release labeled "News From U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia."

"It's over," people murmured, with the over-quick overstatement customary of a room full of journalists.

But word was also spreading on the Senate floor via notes and whispers, and there, too, Byrd's news seemed to ratify a feeling that had been growing since President Clinton's defense opened strong on Tuesday afternoon: There won't be the 67 votes necessary to remove Clinton from office and it is time to stop trying. A vigorous effort by the House prosecution team was falling short.

How it would end – unclear. When it would end – unclear. Whether this might be just one more false finish to a struggle that has already had more endings than a Mahler symphony – unclear.

Still, the mood was entirely clear.

The news from Byrd was that the Senate's senior Democrat will move to dismiss the case. Byrd, 81, has been a glowering critic of the president's misbehavior and deceit, and he is clearly more devoted to the Senate than to his party. So Byrd, along with several other unpredictable Democrats – retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, for example, and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska – was a bellwether for the prosecution. Lose him, lose the case.

"Most people would say we don't have 67," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) after hearing the news. Similar sentiments were expressed, on and off the floor, by other Republicans, including the lead prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.

Byrd caught a lot of people by surprise. Scarcely an hour earlier, he'd had the president's lawyers squirming.

To set the scene: It was the first day designated for senators to ask questions. For impeachment watchers, this was a much-anticipated event. After hour upon hour of lawyerly monologues, stretching over more than a week, it was time for some give-and-take.

As with so much of this impeachment trial, the session was a time-capsule visit to the days of Grant and Lee. The rules in force were the very ones developed for the trial of Andrew Johnson in 1868. All questions had to be put in writing. Runners carried the questions to the desk of each party's leader.

Taking turns, the leaders passed the questions to a clerk, who carried them to the desk, where another official passed them up to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in the presiding officer's chair. Rehnquist read them out.

For the first hour or so, the questions followed a pattern: Each party served up a softball for the team of its choice. A couple of Republican senators, for example, asked the House managers to enumerate important points that the White House lawyers had omitted from their opening arguments. The next question was from a Democrat, inviting the White House to respond. And so on.

Question 12 came from Byrd, and it was the first toughie: "Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, states that the subjects of impeachment are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men," Rehnquist read. "Or in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust." Why, Byrd wondered, wasn't lying to the American public an abuse of trust?

He stared hard at White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff as Ruff fumbled through an answer. Byrd gave no sign of friendship or comfort. But apparently the lawyer said something right. The news release came soon after.

Another 38 questions followed before the Senate adjourned. As the day wore on, they became more rhetorically pointed.

"How can someone refresh their recollection by making statements they know to be false?" two Republicans asked, reminding everyone for the thousandth time of a particular weak spot in the president's grand jury testimony.

"How does the concept of proportionality relate to the rule of law?" a Democrat countered, calling up the pro-Clinton mantra that impeachment is out of scale to the president's offenses.

As the lawyers gamely replayed and repackaged the points they have been making in one form or another for more than two months, it was plain that the senators were sagging.

They were no longer furiously scribbling notes. There was a lot of whispering and passing messages. Although attendance remained astonishing by ordinary Senate standards, there were more empty desks and the senators seemed to stay away longer. They returned from their breaks with the enthusiasm of volunteers in some dire medical experiment.

"The fatigue factor is setting in," Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) complained to CNN.

The Senate will be back today at 10 a.m. for more. It's not over till it's over.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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