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'Real Unease' Marks Senate Deliberation

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  • By William Claiborne
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 22, 1999; Page A25

    Craig Thomas made his way silently and purposefully through the dimly-lit labyrinth of tunnels underneath the U.S. Capitol, seeming to stew inwardly over the State of the Union address he had just heard from a president who supposedly was on the ropes and fighting for his life in an impeachment trial – but whose approval rating was obviously going to go up again.

    Back in his office, Thomas, a 65-year-old ex-Marine and bedrock conservative Republican senator, had a few things to say to his constituents back in Wyoming about this Baby Boomer president who he says has disgraced himself. A wire service reporter from Cheyenne was on the line, and Thomas was saying, "Typical Bill Clinton, frankly. Listed all the issues that had polling appeal. . . . Either he is a good actor or a good compartmentalizer."

    Thomas's wife, Susan, sitting across the room, chided him gently, urging him to soften the hard edge a bit. Thomas tried but could not help himself: "How can you be kind to an [expletive] like that?" he said in an almost inaudible aside to nobody in particular.

    But even Clinton haters have their limits. Yesterday, Thomas noted a "certain weariness" among many of his colleagues with the pace of the impeachment trial. Nothing will happen, he cautioned, "until there's a majority reflecting a feeling that this case has been fairly and completely presented." Still, an exit strategy could be in the offing, he hinted.

    "I wouldn't think there is any strong feeling for wrapping it up this weekend," Thomas said. "A week from now, there certainly might be."

    Two weeks into the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years, a cross section of six senators being tracked by The Washington Post said they were impressed by the presentations of both the House managers and the White House lawyers. They all said they are paying close heed to the arguments on both sides. They care about the institution of the Senate; there's no chance, they insisted, that this will turn into another O.J. Simpson trial.

    But sitting on the floor can be tedious: One senator said he has seen many a colleague drift away into the blank stare of not being really there.

    And for all the efforts of the House managers to keep their gig going – to somehow change a trajectory that seems to be running toward acquittal – there are incipient bipartisan signs that many senators are itching to move on to other business.

    Thomas said he is wary of having a long list of witnesses and an unnecessarily long trial, adding that maybe in a week there could be a movement to start bringing things to a conclusion. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and some of his Democratic colleagues have approached some Senate conservatives, sensing that they might be willing to consider an up-or-down vote on ending the matter even more quickly.

    Perhaps most telling are the comments of Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), a former Democrat who turned Republican. He appeared chilly toward the House arguments that witnesses should be called and that the president should then be tossed from office. There's a considered philosophical position in Shelby's statements. It should not be easy to convict the president, he noted.

    "The burden of proof should be beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "These are criminal charges. . . . People say, 'Well, you aren't voting to send someone to prison.' But in some ways, what you are doing is more severe.

    "I still believe the burden must be on the prosecutors to make their case."

    Harkin, an unreconstructed liberal from a farm state, is one of those trying to stir the movement to end things quickly. Some Democrats, Harkin said, see a need to gauge the sentiment of Republicans on how they might vote to end the trial sooner rather than later. And so five or six of them – with the knowledge of their leadership – met Wednesday night to map out a strategy for enlisting Republican support for either a motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton or a straight up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment, or both.

    Operating on the theory that moderate Republicans would be unlikely to vote to end the trial this early, the ad hoc Democratic group began sounding out some of the most conservative members of the Senate.

    "There's some real unease over there, real unease, and there could be some surprises . . . from some Republicans you think perhaps are really conservative," Harkin said. These conservatives, he said, "may be the first to vote to stop the whole thing." Much as Richard M. Nixon was in a unique position to go to China and seek detente with a communist power, "maybe only the die-hard conservatives can vote to dismiss this case," Harkin reasoned.

    And the source of the conservatives' unease? The flawed and overly vague articles of impeachment themselves, "some political considerations" and concern about prolonging the trial – which they are convinced will end in acquittal anyway for failure to reach a two-thirds majority, in a body the GOP controls by only a 55 to 45 margin.

    "There is a possibility this thing could be wrapped up this weekend," Harkin said, with no small measure of optimism. Some Republicans, he said, are "just mad at the House [because] the House Republicans have put them in a bad position."

    One Republican senator who sounded unmistakably leery of continuing the trial and wary of calling witnesses or, at this point, even of voting to convict is Shelby. While offering the requisite compliments for the Republican House prosecutors – "from a professional point of view, their presentation was very good" – Shelby said the White House counsel, Charles F.C. Ruff, offered a strong rebuttal with considerable substance and "raised a lot of questions about the House case."

    These questions, Shelby suggested, reflected his own concerns. "A lot of the charges [in the House impeachment articles] were vague, they were not specific about the charges, and this and that," he said. "In a court of law, charges like these are subject to being dismissed. It makes us think . . . I'm wondering why the House wasn't more specific in the impeachment charges?"

    Shelby also said he is not yet convinced the House managers need to call witnesses. "If it's going to be repetitive and redundant and so forth, we should consider [the House managers' request] for what it is," Shelby said. "We shouldn't lower the Senate to the level of the average trial we see in America. If it's going to be a spectacle, I don't want to demean the Senate. We ought to be a above that."

    Shelby did not rule out voting for a motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton, but he cautioned that the president's lawyers must weigh their timing carefully. Bring the motion to dismiss too early, and senators might balk at appearing to move too impulsively, and politically, he said. But bring the motion too late, and the senators might argue that the case is too far along. "I don't know how I'd go on a vote to dismiss," he said. "It has to be timely. . . . And if I was doing it, I wouldn't just try to show the public that the Democrats have a hard 34 votes against impeachment, that's a given. If I was doing it, I'd try to win it."

    Returning to the political cauldron of Washington Tuesday after a 24-hour visit to his home state, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) suggested that the impeachment trial was on "autopilot," far removed from the logic that is supposed to guide the world's greatest deliberative body and even further removed from the concerns of the public with which he was able to connect briefly in the frozen planes of North Dakota.

    "It's like a machine, just grinding on," he reflected bleakly during his respite from the trial. And at home, the trial is little more than a distant rumble on the horizon, far removed from the stern economic realities confronting farmers and ranchers in his state.

    On Monday, Dorgan, a former state tax commissioner whose dry, barbed humor and understated midwestern demeanor long made him North Dakota's top vote-getter, listened as state lawmakers urgently asked him to find money for channeling the heedless rivers that nearly wiped Grand Forks off the map last year.

    At lunch, businesswoman Evelyn Neuens, who remembered the heavy black-and-white saddle Dorgan's father used on his stallion in downtown Bismarck decades ago, told him she was shuttering her Neuens Western Store after 42 years, a victim of hard times.

    And at night, he ate prime rib with 1,200 small grain dealers anxious over the collapse of hog and grain prices that precipitated the worst farm crisis in 60 years.

    For Dorgan, who has spent 30 years in elective office, the president's impeachment trial baffles and frustrates. It is "a simple story of human failing," he said, exploited by an independent counsel and merged with a booming "scandal industry in technology and journalism."

    "The American people have been bombarded by this story for a full year. It's everyday, in every way, it's Geraldo, it's MSNBC, it's Larry King. I don't think there's some higher meaning here," he said. As the trial ground on this week, he said, "You sit there and almost have to pinch yourself that you're a U.S. senator in this hallowed chamber and hearing this kind of thing. It's really quite surreal in many ways."

    The freshman Democratic senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh, is guarded about his views. He is still wrestling with the central issues, he said, but appearing to lean at least slightly in favor of the president on legal and constitutional grounds.

    "I haven't decided yet. I haven't decided," Bayh said when asked if the House managers had made the case for impeachment. "One of the threshold questions in this case is, 'What constitutes a removable offense.' Not what constitutes immoral conduct. Not what constitutes deplorable judgment. Not even what constitutes lower-level criminal offenses. But what is so serious that the only way to save the Republic is to remove the duly elected head of our government from office. And I have not answered that."

    While this is not a regular court of law, the level of proof for what will amount to a conviction must be close to beyond a reasonable doubt, said Bayh, an attorney. "I was thinking to myself, 'Could it truly be said that we would have a lower standard for removing the president of the United States from office, for allegedly criminal conduct, than for someone charged with shoplifting or jaywalking?'"

    Bayh said he has noticed the "ebb and flow," as first arguments prove persuasive in some points and then weaken or are challenged by opposing views. He has noted this even in conversations with fellow senators, and he is convinced that those who predict an outcome at this point may be proven wrong.

    "We're all United States senators, and we're all also human beings," he said. "There is a dynamic at work. Where it will end up, I don't think we can say. But it does shift and change with the power and persuasiveness of the presentation.

    "For anyone who thought, 'Hey, these are just 100 public officials and they know what they are going to do and their minds are made up,' that's not the case. People are listening. People's thoughts are being affected. The process matters.

    "I don't think we'll know until we're there. I really don't."

    Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, is there, in the farthest row of the Senate, her desk piled high. It is Day 2 of the prosecution, and Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) is talking, summarizing the evidence. "What are the results of the act and who benefited?" he asks rhetorically. He directs the senators to page 124 of Monica S. Lewinsky's testimony.

    Most of them don't look. Collins picks up the document, with both hands, as if she is holding a Bible at Sunday service. "He sort of said, you know, we can always say you were coming to see Betty. And I knew exactly what that meant," McCollum quotes Lewinsky. Collins is reading the page. She makes a notation on one of the pages. Other senators are looking at the ceiling, at each other.

    For most of the day, it will be just like this. Collins cares about this proceeding. She was asked to do the Sunday talk shows. She declined. Her staff planned for her to talk to the reporters that Friday, but she decided it was not appropriate. Instead, she slipped in through a back door.

    She found the presentation of the House managers excellent. "The House presentations were very powerful," she says. "It was obvious that a great deal of preparation had gone into the presentations. They were very professional. The sincerity and passion of the House managers really came through."

    Collins is one of the few senators who genuinely has not made up her mind. From the beginning of the scandal, she has not known what to think. She has her prejudices against Clinton – as an important figure in the 1997 Senate campaign finance investigation of the 1996 presidential election, she accused the White House of "an orchestrated plan to slow the production of documents."

    But Collins sometimes has more in common with the president's agenda than that of her own party. She is in favor of abortion rights, a supporter of gay rights and a former longtime aide to William S. Cohen, now Clinton's secretary of defense.

    And so, Collins is eager to hear the other side of the House managers' presentation. "After each day, I reminded myself that it was like reading the first chapter of a book. You didn't know what was going to come next and what the outcome was going to be."

    Staff writers Lorraine Adams, Gabe Escobar, Spencer Hsu, Michael Powell and Steve Twomey contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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