TOPICS > Politics

Senate Democrats

February 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now four democrats. Margaret Warner also talked to them late this afternoon.

MARGARET WARNER: All four of these Democratic senators voted “not guilty” today on both articles of impeachment: Carl Levin of Michigan, Richard Durbin of Illinois, John Edwards of North Carolina, and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Dorgan, are you pleased by the outcome of today?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: There’s nothing pleasing about any of this. This has been a long, torturous trail, and we’ve done our constitutional duty. I don’t think the president should take solace in the results. I think we did our duty. Now, I think it’s time for all of us, the American people, the president, the Congress, to put this behind us and move on. We’ve got a lot of challenging things ahead of us, and it’s time to move on.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Durbin, what are your thoughts after this whole —

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Oh, I’m relieved. I think America is relieved too. And I’m glad it ended with a decisive verdict. The Constitution set a standard of 2/3 to impeach. Of course, neither article reached that level. And neither article had a majority of senators supporting it. So now we have the decision of the senate. We can close this sad chapter in American political history.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Edwards, Jim Lehrer just spoke with four Republican senators, and Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah said he thought the decision on how to vote was really an agonizing one for people on both sides of the aisle; he felt there were maybe only 20 senators for whom it was easy. Was it difficult for you?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: It was. And I think I was not alone in that. I struggled throughout this process, I mean, particularly with the obstruction of justice charge. I thought there was an awful lot of conflicting evidence on each side. And one of the things that – one of the observations that I made as a new senator – these other guys are all much more experienced at this than I am — but I was incredibly impressed with watching the anguish and the struggle that every senator went through to reach what I think was a difficult decision. I really believe deep down that people were trying to do the right thing, and I heard that on the floor of the senate time and time again as people came to the podium to speak. I have to tell you, it would have been a wonderful thing for the American people to have been able to see their senate in operation in these deliberations because I think they would have been very, very impressed with it.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you say it was difficult, what made it difficult?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: It was difficult because there was conflicting evidence. I mean, the evidence was not clear. On a lot of these charges – particularly on obstruction — for me the decision was made by the fact that the prosecution was not able to carry its burden of proof. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have any evidence to support the charge. It means when their evidence was weighed against the evidence for the defense, on balance, for me at least, it was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Levin, how did you come to your decision?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I studied the record that we got, that the House relied on, and I think they frankly should not have relied on Kenneth Starr’s investigation, and they should have done their own independent investigation, as every other impeachment Judiciary Committee in the history of the House had done, but we got this massive record, I studied it very closely, and what I found is that the House basically was relying on inferences from the testimony of people whose direct testimony contradicted the inferences, which the House wanted us to draw. So, for instance, when the House said the president encouraged Monica Lewinsky to lie and they based that on pieces of testimony from here, thither and yon — the problem with that inference that they wanted us to draw is that Monica Lewinsky told us flat out on videotape and other places, no, the president did not encourage her to lie. So it was a lot of digging into this record that convinced me that the testimony simply did not prove the elements of the offenses that he was charged with.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Dorgan, was it any kind of a struggle for you?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Sure. It was a struggle for everybody. I mean, this was dealing with a constitutional process, with the potential nullification of an election. This was agony for a lot of members of the United States Senate, and I did, as Sen. Levin and others – my colleagues did – I mean, there were a lot of late, late nights and early mornings, reading all of these transcripts and testimony — this wasn’t easy. At the end, however, I felt that this was not what the Framers of the Constitution meant about high crimes and misdemeanors. And I just didn’t feel that I could vote to convict the president on these two counts. It doesn’t mean that I don’t seriously disapprove of the president’s behavior. But the American people elected this president. One of my colleagues said, by the way, that there are only two countries in the last 200 years that haven’t had their government changed through violence — this country and England. It is a very rare thing to see what we have – the shift of power through elections. And we need to be very careful as we deal with that. And that’s why this was such a sobering decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Durbin, do you see it that way, that in part it was a vote reaffirming or for the stability of our system?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: No question about it – the two institutions that really ruled this decision – first the Constitution and its legacy – I can’t tell you how many senators came to the floor and talked about what our Founding Fathers were really setting out to do. Secondly, of course, I think the wisdom of the American people — you know, they had their verdict entered a long time ago. They said the president’s personal conduct was wrong but that he should continue as the President of the United States. We had some complicating factors – the role of Ken Starr in this, for example. I think that that has led a bipartisan majority in the Senate at least, perhaps in the House, to really want to reassess this statute. I’m not sure that the independent counsel statute can survive after what’s happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Levin, there’s been a lot of talk both about partisanship and bipartisanship, and I think it was Sen. Lott who pointed out after the vote that, you know, not one Democrat broke ranks, every Democrat voted to acquit on both articles. How is the American public supposed to look at that?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: They’ll look at each of us in our own states and look us in the eye and say, did you vote for what you believe was right, and we’ll look them back in the eye and say I think in every case – certainly in mine – and I know in my colleagues’ cases – we voted for what we thought was our duty and what we believed was right. The evidence simply did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president had committed two crimes, as reprehensible as his personal conduct was. We believe that there’s a presumption of innocence in this country when someone is charged with crimes. We believe the prosecution has a burden of proof in this country to show that the crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt, and when I look my constituents in the eye and say, I would have applied that same standard to you, had you been in a jury trial, the president is entitled to the same standards as every other citizen, I think they will accept that we all voted for what we believed our duty drove us to.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Edwards, do you think the public is going to accept that when they see to what degree it was a party-line vote?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: You know, I think they will, if they look at the evidence. I want to follow up on something Sen. Levin just said, because I believe in it so deeply. I think we had a real responsibility to look at this evidence and the prosecution had the burden of proof. They had to prove that the president committed these crimes, and that was the first step in the analysis. If you didn’t get past that, you didn’t get to any other questions. And the reality is, as Sen. Levin pointed out, and I can’t agree with him more, in many cases they were trying to use relatively weak circumstantial evidence to overcome very powerful, direct evidence on the other side. And there just wasn’t enough to do that. And I think ultimately the American people will see that this case was not proven.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Durbin, how should the president look upon this verdict now?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think the president’s announcement in the Rose Garden set the right tone. He again apologized to the American people for his wrongdoing and all the pain that he has caused to his family and to the nation, but he asked for a reconciliation and that we move forward. I think that’s the right tone. You know, there’s been a lot of speculation about gloat and vengeance in the White House. I didn’t think that was going to happen, and it didn’t happen today. We really have the stage set now to come back together in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, and address the substantive issues. This president, though he’s a lame duck, is a very popular president even throughout this scandal. He has a strong economy to point to. And I think he can bring us to the table and work on an agenda that we can really craft in the months ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Dorgan, did you see the president’s statement?


MARGARET WARNER: And what was your thought about this?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I thought it came up a little short. You know, I understand – I guess – what he was saying. I had hoped – this is a president of considerable communicative skills, and I had hoped he would be a bit more forthcoming. This must now end the chapter, and I agree with him; it’s time to turn our attention to the other business of this country. But I wish he had been a bit more forthcoming and said to the American people I caused this, I deeply regret it, and will forever regret it, but now let us – recognizing that – let’s move on. But I guess I just felt he came up a bit short in that.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Edwards, how did you look upon that statement? I don’t know if you saw it, but I understand you read it.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I read it, and I read it just briefly. Actually, I agree with Sen. Dorgan. I would like to have seen him go further. I’d liked to have seen him make it very clear and acknowledge the fact that the reason we’ve been going through this trial is not others, it’s President Clinton. I mean, he’s the source of all this. And I guess I would have liked to have seen him be a little stronger. I do think he’s absolutely right, though. It’s time for this sad chapter to come to an end, and we do need to get on to issues that matter – education, health care, Social Security, the things that I and my colleagues feel so strongly about.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Levin, how about you, what did you think about the president’s statement?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I read it, and I thought it was adequate. I agree with Sen. Durbin. He expressed his profound sorrow for what he had caused and he didn’t – he said now he wanted to look forward. And I think that – those are the two right tones – a statement of contrition for what he did cause, but that was clearly there – and then a forward-looking closing to that short statement. And there will be no celebration at the White House; they have really nothing to celebrate. And there will be, I hope, a realization, at least in the Senate, we came together as a bipartisan group here – regardless of our votes – we are closer as senators than we were before this trial because of what we’ve come through. And I hope the president builds on that – at least Senate’s sense of bipartisanship – this was much too partisan in the House. It got off on the wrong foot there, but we ended it with some bipartisan dignity in the Senate, and I hope the president will build on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Durbin, do you think the president has been seriously weakened or wounded to the point that it will be difficult for him to lead?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I don’t think so, but of course, it depends on whether Congress is prepared to be led, or at least prepared to negotiate. He’s a lame duck president in the last two years of an eight-year term, and he’s diminished by that – every president is. But he still has, as I mentioned earlier, really strong support from the American people. He can point to some extraordinary accomplishments. The fact that we are now debating how we’re going to spend a surplus – it wasn’t that long ago that we were fighting through deficits and red ink. We have really – through this president’s leadership and the help of Congress – we’ve dealt with that problem. We have a surplus. We can solve some long-standing problems in this country if we can come together. I think his agenda from the State of the Union address really sets the stage for us to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Dorgan, do you think the president is diminished by this, though, what the country’s been through, what he’s been through for the past year?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Probably, but I also agree with my colleague, Sen. Durbin. Look, this is a president who I think in many ways has done an excellent job. This country is doing well. Its economy is growing. I mean, there are a lot of good things about where we are and where we’re headed. And this president is full of ideas, a lot of good ideas. And if we can turn our attention to the agenda in front of us, this president can continue to provide leadership through the end of his term. And I hope that Democrats and Republicans and colleague – in Congress, rather, can come together on the important issues and work with the president; I’m sure we will.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Levin, you’ve been in the Senate longer than any of your three colleagues here.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Does it show, though?

MARGARET WARNER: No. I had to look it up. And you said that you all have become closer than you ever have before. Do you think that will carry over?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I do. It was quite an amazing phenomenon that just – listening to each other – all of us there – each one of us had put a lot of thought into what we would say and there was great respect for each other – and our two leaders – Senators Daschle and Lott – were really quite extraordinary, I think, so we came together as individuals, closer, and as a group much closer, and it can carry over. The president has got great leadership qualities on important issues that people care about. He’s shown an ability to focus in the middle of an impeachment on things that count – on saving Social Security and on education and in guaranteeing health care. He has been able to do that in the middle of an impeachment, and I have no doubt now that this is over he will do so even more than ever.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all four very much, and have a nice break.