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Fasten your seat belts

Tom Daschle is trying to help Trent Lott land the impeachment plane. But hang on--it's going to be bumpy

By John F. Dickerson/Washington

February 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:39 p.m. EDT (1239 GMT)

TIME magazine

Last week should have been a bad one for Tom Daschle. The Senate minority leader watched his party get flattened by the Republicans on five crucial impeachment votes. According to the partisan handbook that has so often held sway over these proceedings, Daschle's final defeat--when the G.O.P. rammed through its road map for the next week--should have sent him to the microphones. There he should have struck an aggrieved pose and bloviated freely, blaming the vindictive Republicans for shattering Senate comity in their hell-bent effort to destroy the President, or some such transgression. But instead he threw out the handbook. The South Dakotan stood before the cameras, blinking modestly and hunching his slight frame just a bit, and tossed lush, fragrant bouquets at the other side. "I appreciate very much Senator Lott's willingness to consider many of the concerns we had," he said of the majority leader, who had just skunked him in vote after vote. "We simply couldn't bring this matter to a successful bipartisan conclusion."

That's no way to avenge a lost battle--unless, of course, you have already won the war. Daschle and his 43 Democratic colleagues may have failed in their attempt to dismiss the case against Bill Clinton, but in that vote and four others, Democrats held together (well, except for the free-spirited Russ Feingold), making it virtually certain that the G.O.P. will never get the 67 votes needed to convict. Though Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal will be deposed this week, even stalwart Republicans privately admit that the trial is basically dead. It's just that the body won't stop twitching.

If Daschle, 51, is being magnanimous these days, it's only because he wants to help Trent Lott find a dignified way to end the proceedings. He knows that Lott wants it to be over but that he will lose part of his caucus if he tries to end it too fast. "This plane has two co-pilots, and I'm going to try to help him land it safely," Daschle told TIME.

The four bumps in the road

With a target date of Feb. 12, the Senate trial's homestretch includes some serious partisan obstacles

--THE VIDEOTAPE
Democrats say it will demean the Senate and Lewinsky if her deposition tape is made public

--THE LIVE WITNESSES
A band of Republicans is likely to insist House managers be allowed to call them

--THE FACT FINDING
A Republican plan to enumerate Clinton's offenses faces strong White House objections

--THE ARTICLES
Acquittal seems assured, but 15 minutes per Senator means time for partisan potshots

Amid the hubbub of the trial, Daschle's low-key style has made it easy to overlook his skills. And the unity of Senate Democrats last week made it easy to forget that they have not always been pushing toward the same goal. In the wake of the President's Aug. 17 admission that he had been lying to the country for months, Senate Democrats appeared to have both the ability and the inclination to throw him overboard. Senator Joseph Lieberman rebuked Clinton, calling his behavior "immoral" and "disgraceful." Several other Senators followed suit, and some privately considered calling for his resignation. Colleagues say Daschle was one of the Clinton allies most deeply wounded. "This has been a very troubling matter to me," he says. "But we've been able to get through it."

For a while, getting through it was made easier by the same bitter partisanship that's now keeping the trial alive. As the Democrats responded to what they saw as a Republican onslaught, keeping the caucus together didn't call for L.B.J.-style strong-arm tactics. And that's lucky, because squeeze plays aren't Daschle's style. With a caucus that includes unreconstructed liberals like Paul Wellstone of Minnesota as well as unpredictable bulls like Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, old-school cajoling just isn't terribly effective. So Daschle holds hands instead of twisting arms, and he brings the caucus together frequently so members can soak up one another's ideas. The former Air Force intelligence officer sits quietly during most deliberations. "He absorbs the sense of what the room wants," says an aide, "and counts on the people close to him to back him up on what course he decides to take."

Daschle has absorbed far more pressure from the defendant in the White House. Months before the impeachment articles ever reached the Senate, Clinton called the minority leader asking if it might be possible to find 34 Democrats who would sign a letter saying they would never convict, no matter what the evidence. Daschle buried the idea, but not before Byrd took to the well of the Senate to accuse the White House of jury tampering. When Daschle, who has denounced Clinton's behavior as well as the White House legal team's hairsplitting, joined Lott in fashioning a blueprint for the proceedings that was ratified by a unanimous Senate vote, Clinton was miffed, wishing instead that Daschle had led the kind of rock throwing that had so benefited the President in the House. "The President thought it was a major stab in the back," says a White House adviser. "He felt it legitimized the process."

As Daschle and Lott slogged through two days of intense negotiations last week, they tried everything they could think of to work out their differences. At issue: whether to make the videotape of the depositions public, whether to fix a firm end date for the trial, whether to allow a vote on a "finding of fact" resolution that would in effect seal Clinton's guilt without convicting him of impeachable offenses. The two leaders talked on the phone. They passed notes. And on Thursday morning they met for 90 minutes in Daschle's conference room. Along the way, they held off the more zealous members of their parties--the ones who wanted to torch the negotiations and break open the gun closets. Late Thursday, Lott called Daschle's cell phone in the middle of a closed-door Democratic caucus to tell him there would be no deal. The rules for going forward would be Republican rules, including one Democrats had strongly resisted, which left open the possibility that videotaped testimony might be released to the public. Despite the impasse, said Lott, he would honor concessions he'd made to Daschle during their days of negotiations. Over some protests from his colleagues, Lott gave the White House more time to prepare for depositions, limited the scope of House questioning and, in a major concession, gave Daschle the power to veto any further witnesses the House managers might want to call. "He didn't have to give me veto power," says Daschle, "and for that I greatly respect and appreciate him."

The fine feeling between Lott and Daschle may not last. Before the impeachment trial comes to a close, bitter questions must be resolved. Will Republicans vote to release the videotapes? Will they end up siding with the House managers and bring live witnesses into the well of the Senate? "Our Republican colleagues are going to have to weigh that this is becoming a Republican trial," says Daschle. "We've tried to be as helpful as we can, but there comes a time when you have to draw a line."

The House managers will do everything they can to push across that boundary, confronting Lott with another set of difficult choices as he tries to grind the process to a halt without angering G.O.P. Senators who feel the prosecution has been slighted. Rather than calling the 15 witnesses the managers wanted, the prosecutors were limited to what Henry Hyde called a "pitiful three." In the crunch, Betty Currie was dropped from the list in exchange for White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. Though calling Currie was once thought to be central to proving the obstruction case, some managers decided the spectacle of 13 white men questioning one middle-aged African-American woman would not help their cause after all.

The parties are also set to do battle over the "finding of fact," a resolution concluding that the President committed any number of offenses, from misleading the grand jury to coaching witnesses. The measure would have no bearing on conviction or acquittal but would give Republicans the chance to issue a formal denunciation, now that it is all but certain Clinton will be let off. If a Senator thought the President lied but did not commit perjury, for example, he or she could vote to affirm the lie in the finding of fact without voting to convict on impeachment. Some conservative Republicans, such as Phil Gramm, oppose the gambit, contending that it is designed solely to give cover to moderate Republicans, allowing them to say they punished Clinton without having to convict him.

Democrats oppose the measure as unconstitutional: since it could pass with a simple majority, they see it as a backdoor way of convicting but not removing Clinton, without reaching the constitutional threshold of a two-thirds majority. To block such a measure, Daschle and the Democrats are sharpening their partisan shivs, threatening a string of amendments that would tie up the Senate chamber indefinitely. They could, says Daschle, submit the President's budget as an amendment and ask the clerk to read it.

In offering such mischief on behalf of his party, Daschle enjoys a respect he did not always have. He won his post in 1995 by a single vote over Connecticut's Christopher Dodd. Running in the wake of the Republican takeover, Daschle was opposed by old lions like Moynihan and Byrd, who thought he lacked the necessary ballast. Since then Byrd has twice nominated him to continue as the party's leader. Dodd, now one of Daschle's close confidants, marvels at his old rival's political skills. "I would have lost it long ago," he says, noting the patience Daschle displays in dealing with his verbose colleagues. "The caucus made a wise decision by its margin of one vote."

This month Daschle will try to help Lott and the Senate reach an even wiser decision. Because sooner or later, the impeachment plane has got to land. Is there a runway down there somewhere?

--With reporting by James Carney/Washington

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: February 8, 1998

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