Senate Begins Clinton Deliberations
Feb. 10, 1999
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate shut its doors Tuesday to debate its verdict on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, with the outcome so evident that one Republican said ``bipartisan acquittal'' was possible by week's end for the second president in history to be put on trial for his job.
After a month and a day spent listening in silence to opposing legal arguments, senators spent four hours in private deliberations in a Senate chamber cleared of House prosecutors, presidential lawyers and gallery spectators.
In all, 18 senators spoke, Republicans alternating with Democrats, before lawmakers adjourned until Wednesday.
``People are very respectful of one another. It's a very dignified climate,'' said Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who had been among the leaders of a failed effort to open the proceedings to the public. Republican Larry Craig of Idaho said there was relatively little give-and-take although occasionally one senator would interrupt another to ask: ``Why do you believe that?'' or ``Where did you find that'' in the trial record?
There was no indication that any Democrat had announced plans to vote to convict Clinton or that any Republican had declared an intention to vote for acquittal.
Democrats pressed their effort for a formal Senate censure of Clinton, but many Republicans were opposed and prospects seemed doubtful. ``I think censure has a tough row to hoe,'' said Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, one of a few GOP lawmakers to have announced support.
Inside the shuttered Senate, the first to speak were Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington, a Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Democrat. The Democrats spoke by seniority. Republicans used a sign-up sheet.
The Senate's senior Democrat, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who has suggested he could vote either way, chose to wait rather than claim the right to speak first among lawmakers in his own party.
With his fate being debated in the Senate, Clinton traveled to West Virginia for a private meeting with House Democrats holding their annual retreat.
Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said the president never overtly mentioned impeachment. But, ``He said, 'Thank you for all the support you've given me over time, going back to 1993, and I'm committed to you in your efforts to achieve a majority''' in the elections in 2000.
Under Senate rules, lawmakers may deliberate for up to 25 hours, with 15 minutes allotted to each senator to speak. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., preached the virtue of brevity, noting that Lincoln's Gettysburg address lasted but three minutes and John F. Kennedy's famed inaugural address scarcely seven.
An effort led by Democrats and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison to open the proceedings failed _ it gained a 59-41 majority but that was short of the two-thirds needed _ with the GOP leadership helping to stiffen the opposition.
Closed-door deliberations are more conducive to thoughtful exchanges, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. ``Sometimes a discussion breaks out. If it's in closed session, you will see more of a dialogue. If there's going to be any persuasion it's only going to be in closed session.'' Despite his remarks, Kyl voted to open the doors.
One Republican senator said he hoped that by closing the deliberations the Senate would be able to engage in a candid, nonpartisan discussion of a proposal to censure Clinton after his presumed acquittal.
Democrats have been leading the censure effort, with the support of a small number of Republicans.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, lent her support during the day. A spokesman said she had succeeded in inserting language in a proposal under consideration to make it clear that Clinton would be treated like any other citizen after he leaves office _ a time when the government decides whether to prosecute him for any alleged crime.
Another Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said many GOP senators oppose censure, but he said he might be receptive as a way of dousing any plans for celebration at the White House. ``What we could end up having by the end of the week is a bipartisan acquittal, which I'm afraid could lead to a good deal of celebrating downtown,'' he said.
Presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart has already declared that the White House will be a ``gloat-free zone'' after the Senate takes its votes. Republicans, in particular, were offended by Clinton's campaign-style appearance at the White House with Democratic lawmakers hours after the House voted last December to impeach him.
With one or two possible exceptions, the Senate's 45 Democrats are expected to vote for Clinton's acquittal on both charges _ perjury and obstruction of justice. Most of the 55 Republicans are expected to vote for conviction, although several GOP senators have said in recent days the article of impeachment alleging perjury, in particular, could fail to achieve a majority vote.
With the end of the historic trial only days away, Republicans moved to tie up loose ends.
Lott dispatched a letter to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr containing what Republican officials said was information about a possible White House taping system that might have picked up telephone conversations between Clinton and Lewinsky. ``All I've done is make available information sent to me,'' Lott told reporters. He said he has had that information for about a week and discussed it with the GOP caucus.
White House spokesman Lockhart has denied the existence of such a system.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sought permission to have the Senate issue subpoenas for three individuals who have cast doubt on trial testimony given last week by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.
Democratic Leader Tom Daschle objected, however. Republicans, who are eager to wrap up the trial without further political damage, let the matter die rather than demand a vote by the full Senate.
In his testimony, Blumenthal denied that he had passed to the news media Clinton's false account from January 1998 about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.
Specter's motion sought to allow exploration of ``possible fraud on the Senate by alleged perjury'' on the part of the White House aide.