Waiting for the bell
With the trial nearly over, Senators look to the door. But will they censure Clinton before they bolt?
By James Carney and John F. Dickerson
February 8, 1999
The feeling in the Senate chamber last week was utterly transformed from the early days of the trial. Back then the Senators, like students on their first day of school, had lined up their favorite pens and pencils in the silver trays atop their desks, pressed down the stiff pages of their fresh notebooks and twisted open brand-new highlighters so that the squeaks from removing their tops echoed throughout the hushed gallery. And they took seriously the daily admonition from the sergeant at arms to remain quiet "on pain of imprisonment."
But that was last month--a million news cycles ago. The pencils aren't so sharp anymore, and the jurors are passing notes and acting up. While they voted last week to reject Monica Lewinsky as a live witness and wrap up the trial by this Friday, Senators were twitching in their seats. Democrats teased their colleague Russ Feingold for voting with the Republicans, and the President's lawyer Greg Craig traded laughs with staunch Republican Don Nickles. During a break, the G.O.P.'s Strom Thurmond, 96, drew clementines from his pockets and, with a flirtatious grin, passed them to Cheryl Mills and Nicole Seligman, two of the President's lawyers. Suddenly the chamber resembled nothing so much as a classroom full of kids waiting for the bell to ring. "It's like final exams are just about over," says Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon. "We're all anxious to head for the exits."
The only people not sharing the good vibes were the 13 House trial managers, many of whom sat at their table with bloodshot eyes and puffy faces, looking like members of some unwanted and unforgiven tribe of outcasts. Their White House counterparts move easily among the Senators, clutching elbows and exchanging meaningful looks, while the House managers have become pariahs--"two-year-olds," as a G.O.P. Senator disdainfully described them in a private meeting with his colleagues. "And everyone knows you shouldn't give two-year-olds everything they want."
Dissed by even their Republican comrades, the House prosecutors still fought bitterly to make their case. But as their hopeless measure for calling Lewinsky to the floor moved to a resounding bipartisan defeat, their desperation became palpable. Georgia's Bob Barr furiously scribbled notes, as if getting it all down could somehow change the outcome. Bill McCollum's voice cracked as the Floridian seized on what he said were new inconsistencies in the defense, though he knew no one much cared anymore. With odd intensity, McCollum and Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner carefully wrote down the names of each and every one of the 25 Republican Senators who voted against them, as if they might fold up the list and press it in their wallets for safekeeping, then wait for some chance to avenge the snub.
The only concession the Senate made was to allow managers to use the videotaped depositions of Lewinsky, Clinton pal Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal in a special session last Saturday. Arkansas Representative Asa Hutchinson took the strands of videotape and contrasted them with excerpts from the President's Paula Jones deposition, splicing up a compelling case that Clinton both lied and obstructed justice. But it was the same case the managers had been making for weeks, and it wasn't going to change the outcome. In the end the only real drama was how Monica would do.
She did fine. She was sophisticated, good at the game. Wearing pearls and a dark pantsuit, sipping Evian over ice through a straw, Lewinsky not only didn't help her interrogator, the hapless Ed Bryant of Tennessee, but also left him with less of a case against the President than he had when the deposition began. She stood by her insistence that no one asked her to lie or offered her a job in exchange for her false affidavit, and refused to agree that the President was lying when his testimony contradicted hers, conceding only that her memory or interpretation differed from his. And she was blunt about why she was such an unhelpful witness. She said she still has "mixed feelings" about Clinton. When Bryant asked, "Do you still, uh, respect the President, still admire the President?" Lewinsky's answer was simple--"Yes." Prosecutors didn't fare much better with Jordan or Blumenthal.
For months, this scandal has defied conclusions, exit strategies and expectations; now it looks as though it might burn out and fade away with nothing more than an acquittal, because the two parties can't come to terms on an appropriate punishment for Clinton. At week's end, with a funeral for Jordan's King Hussein the only thing that could delay a final vote, Republican and Democratic Senators were still trying to craft a coda to the trial--a penalty that would leave pro-impeachment lawmakers with some dignity and prevent what Utah's Orrin Hatch described as "a rush to the champagne bottles at the White House." The impulse was particularly intense among Hatch's fellow Republicans, for whom impeachment has become about as popular and successful an adventure as the war in Vietnam. "We need a way out of this that doesn't look as if we've got our tails between our legs," said a Republican leadership aide.
But Peace with Dignity won't come easily. For all the bipartisan bonhomie that has marked the Senate proceedings, Democrats aren't inclined to do much to help Republicans save face with their party's Clinton-loathing right wing. The G.O.P. proposal with the most momentum last week, the so-called finding-of-fact proposal, would have cataloged the offenses that Senators believed had been proved in the trial, allowing them to affirm that the President had coached witnesses and lied to the grand jury. The proposal was almost indistinguishable in content from the punishment preferred by most Democrats--censure--yet Democrats rejected it as an unconstitutional sham. "To do this because some Senators are uncomfortable with acquittal and need some political cover is to engage in schizophrenia," complained Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd.
With the Republican plan dead, Democrats and a small band of Republicans traded drafts and phone calls, trying to come up with a knuckle-rapping censure plan that would satisfy those in both parties who do not want Clinton's acquittal to be seen as vindication. To pick up more Republican votes, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California huddled at her desk on the Senate floor with Republican Robert Bennett of Utah during the brief trial recesses, carefully increasing the measure's wallop.
Though a bipartisan coalition was forming behind censure, plenty of G.O.P. Senators were trying to bury the idea. They were joined by a number of Democrats who believe that censure of any flavor is either unconstitutional or unfair to the President. "Most of us look at it as raw political cover," said Republican Larry Craig of Idaho, who questioned the motives of Republicans and Democrats who support censure. "It's nothing more than a slap on the wrist with a wet noodle." Those who would block censure could filibuster the measure, raising the number of votes needed from a simple majority to 60.
But for many Republicans in Congress and beyond, blocking a censure resolution would be the last great political blunder in a year-long Clinton scandal that has unified Democrats and nearly crippled the G.O.P. "Republicans need the cover as much as Democrats do," warns Ken Duberstein, a former Reagan White House chief of staff and Republican Party elder. "Just because Democrats want it doesn't make it bad."
Oregon's Smith, for one, agrees. He says he'll consider supporting censure--if the language is strong enough--even if it helps Democrats more than Republicans. "There have been too many victims in this sorry story," he says. "I don't feel it in my heart to deny either side political cover." For censure to pass, Senators from both sides will have to decide that a bipartisan conclusion serves everyone's interests. And they don't have much time to get there before the bell rings and everyone rushes for the exit.
--With reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington
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