TOPICS > Politics


January 25, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: As the Senate prepared to enter the third week of the president’s impeachment trial, there were widely diverging questions: Would Democrats succeed in ending the trial without even a vote on the impeachment articles, or would Republicans extend the trial by voting to call witnesses? With Republicans controlling the agenda and meeting this morning in private, Democrats were left to speculate publicly when senators might bring the trial to a close.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: My best judgment is, if we’re going to do that, it would have to be done in a relatively short time, a matter of days, because if you go much beyond that and open up to a couple witnesses here and a couple witnesses there, then you’re going to be into weeks and even months. At that point, I think, the senate loses all control over the schedule.

KWAME HOLMAN: A month ago, Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman teamed with Washington State Republican Slade Gorton and proposed ways of shortening the trial process, but their ideas were rejected, primarily by Senate Republicans.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D) Connecticut: You know, it seemed to us as the day ended on Saturday that the Senate was heading in exactly the direction we hoped it would not go in this impeachment trial, which is to say that it was getting much more confrontational and divided along party lines, and that we were looking forward to a week in which there would be a very bitterly debated motion to dismiss and an equally bitterly debated motion to subpoena witnesses.

SPOKESMAN: Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,

KWAME HOLMAN: The impeachment trial reconvened on schedule this afternoon with Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding, but there was a noticeable lack of participants in the senate chamber. Majority leader Trent Lott stood to explain their absence.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: As is obvious by the absence of the managers and counsel and a number of the senators, the two parties are still meeting in conference at this time. I believe we are close to reaching an agreement, which would outline today’s impeachment proceedings, but we’ll probably be about an hour or so because we need to complete that, because we need to explain it in detail to our respective conferences and also make sure we have reduced it to writing, where we understand exactly what we are agreeing to.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lott asked that the Senate stand in recess for an hour while talks continued. He then left the chamber to explain the delay to the waiting media.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Rather than getting so bogged down in process — and I am doing this now just because, you know, there is a question about, “well, why didn’t you begin at 1:00?”– it’s because we are still discussing ideas, and it has more to do with how we proceed for the balance of the day. The bigger picture is, we are still going forward with what’s required by the Constitution, by the law, and by the rules, and basically we are going to stick with that. And the purpose is to make sure that we have had every opportunity to find out what the facts are, clear up disputes in evidence wherever we can, and go through the process of having votes, and then how we proceed after each vote will be determined by how that vote occurs.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shortly after 2 o’clock, Lott was back on the Senate floor, ready to proceed.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I had earlier asked for a couple of unanimous concept requests.

KWAME HOLMAN: But this time Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin was not.

WILLIAM REHQUIST: Is there objection?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Mr. Chief Justice –

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: The Senator from Iowa.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Reserving the right to object –

KWAME HOLMAN: Harkin simply objected to some of the wording in the agreement to proceed, but rather than the handle his concerns before the full Senate and in view of the television audience, Lott asked for another time-out.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: So that we can consider this an in an appropriate manner, I would suggest absence of a quorum.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: The clerk will call the roll.

CLERK: Mr. Abraham.

KWAME HOLMAN: Shortly before 3 o’clock, Lott tried again.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Welcome to the operations of the United States Senate. (Laughter) I observe the absence of a quorum. I ask that it be dispensed with.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lott finally outlined a process in which Democrats would file a motion to end the trial immediately and Republicans would file a motion to subpoena witnesses. Both motions would be debated in open session by House prosecutors and the president’s defense team. Senators would debate in closed session. Following all debate, the Senate would vote on the two motions, presumably on Wednesday.

SPOKESPERSON: I send a motion in writing to the desk.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the trial portion of the process continued. House prosecutors and the president’s defenders squared off on the motion by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd to end the impeachment trial without calling witnesses and without a vote on the impeachment articles.

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON, Impeachment Manager: To dismiss the case would be unprecedented from a historical standpoint because it’s never been discover before. It would be damaging to the Constitution because the Senate would fail to try the case. It would be harmful to the body politic because there’s no resolution of the issues of the case. But most importantly, it would show willful blindness to the evidentiary record that has thus far been presented. Now, an appropriate question that you might ask is how should you decide whether this motion should be granted. I would contend that you should decide this issue based on the facts you have before you in the record and not on any other criteria. A motion to dismiss should not be granted because you do not think there are presently enough votes for conviction.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nicole Seligman, one of the president’s private lawyers, was the sole speaker making the argument for dismissal.

NICOLE SELIGMAN, Clinton Lawyer: I do want to set out briefly the reasons that we believe an early and fair disposition of this difficult matter on which they might rest. There are at least four such grounds. Each one stands by itself as sufficient reason to vote for the motion of Senator Byrd.

The first ground is the core constitutional issue before you, the failure of the articles to charge impeachable offenses. They do not do so. They do not allege conduct that, if proven, violated the public trust in the manner the Framers intended when they wrote the words “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” for absent an element of immediate danger to the state, a danger of such magnitude that it cannot await resolution by the electorate in the normal cycle, the Framers intended restraint. There is no such danger to the state here. No one has made that claim or could or would. A vote for the motion is a vote for constitutional stability.

The second and third grounds we offered to you relate to the deeply flawed drafting of the articles by the House of Representatives. They have left the House managers free to fill what Mr. Ruff described as an empty vessel, to define for the House of Representatives what it really had in mind when it impeached the president. But that is not a role that the Constitution allows to be delegated to the House managers. It is not a role that the Constitution allows them to fill. It is a role that is explicitly and uniquely reserved to the full House of Representatives, which under our Constitution has the sole power to impeach.

The articles also are unconstitutionally defective for yet another reason: Because each article combines a venue of charges, and the managers invite the members of this body to convict on one or more of the charges they list. The result is the deeply troubling prospect that the president might be convicted and removed from office without two-thirds of the Senate agreeing on what the president actually did. Such a result would be in conflict with the requirement that the president cannot be convicted unless two-thirds of this body concurs. The requirement of a two-thirds super majority is at the core of the constitutional protection afforded the president and the American people. The Founding Fathers were wise to guarantee that protection, and it has protected the presidency for more than two centuries.

The House must not be allowed to erode that protection today. The articles, as drafted, are unconstitutional. The fourth ground for the motion is based on the facts. Mr. Manager McCollum has twice asserted that this body must first determine whether the president committed crimes and then move on to the question of removal from office. Recognizing that each senator is free to choose the standard of proof that his or her conscience dictates, we submit that if the question is, as the managers would have it, whether the president has committed a crime, that standard should be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

And it is clear that such a standard that is proof to the level of certainty necessary to make the most significant decisions you face in life, cannot possibly be met here. The presentations last week demonstrated that the record is full of exculpatory facts and deeply ambiguous circumstantial evidence that will make it impossible for the managers to meet this standard or, in fact, any standard that you might in good conscience choose to apply here.

Now, the managers have with great ingenuity spun out theories of wrongdoing that they have advanced repeatedly, persistently, passionately, but mere repetition, no matter how dogged, cannot create a reality where there is none. The factual record is before you. We submit that it does not approach the kind of case that you would need to justify the conviction and removal of the president from office. And calling witnesses is not the answer. All the evidence you need to make your decision is before you documented in thousands of pages of testimony, given under oath or to the F.B.I. agents, and Mr. Starr’s prosecutors under penalty of law.


KWAME HOLMAN: Lead House manager Henry Hyde was the last to speak, arguing against dismissal.

REP. HENRY HYDE: If these articles are dismissed, all inferences in support of the respondents, in support of us, the managers, should be allowed. And if you allow all reasonable inferences in our favor, what kind of a message does it send to America to dismiss the articles of impeachment? Charges of perjury, obstruction of justice are summarily dismissed, disregarded, ignored, brushed off, and these are charges that send ordinary folks to jail every day of the week and remove federal judges. But I can see this president is different. But if the double standard is to flourish on Capitol Hill, I don’t think we’ve accomplished a great deal.

Yes, it’s cumbersome. These proceedings are archaic in many ways. The question, period, was something out of old Bailey, I guess, I don’t know. But democracy is untidy. I’ll stipulate that. It is untidy, but it is also a blessing. Impeachment and trial by the Senate were devised by our Framers to make this difficult process as definitive as possible. Let’s get the matter behind us. That’s a mantra. That’s a cliche. We all say it. You won’t get it behind you if you dismiss this without voting on the articles. You’ll guarantee contention. You’ll never get it behind us. Vote these argues up or down. That’s the only way they really get it behind you. What this is, this motion, is a legal way of saying, “so what,” to the charges that we’ve levied here.

Now, look at what these charges are. So what that the president violated his oath of office and willfully corrected and manipulated the judicial process for his personal gain and exoneration? So what that President Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false, and misleading testimony to the grand jury on several topics? So what that the president corruptly encouraged a witness in a federal civil rights action brought against him to execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious, false, and misleading? So what that the president encouraged a witness to lie to the grand jury and conceal evidence? So what if the president has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the presidency, has betrayed his trust as president, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice to the manifest injury of the people of the United States? That’s an awful lot to dismiss with a brush off, to ignore with a mere so what.

Now, it may be routine. We certainly don’t have enough experience in these impeachment matters, and thank God for that. It may be routine to file a motion to dismiss, but I take very seriously the motion to dismiss, especially when it is offered by the very distinguished senator who did that. But I hope in a bipartisan way — I would hope some Democrats would support a rejection of this motion, difficult as it is, because I don’t think this whole sad, sad drama will end. We will never get it behind us until you vote up or down on the articles. And when you do, however you vote, we’ll all collect our papers, bow from the waist, thank you for your courtesy, and leave – and go gently into the night. But let us finish our job. Thank you.

KWAME HOLMAN: After two hours of open debate, senators voted on and defeated a Democratic motion that would have opened their debate on the issue, as well.

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: On this vote, the yeahs are 43. The nays are 57. Two-thirds of those senators voting, and a quorum being present, not having voted in the affirmative, the motion is not agreed to.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Mr. Chief Justice, I move that we now go into closed session for the purpose of the senators debating the motion to dismiss.

KWAME HOLMAN: Spectators in the Senate gallery were asked to leave, and the television cameras were turned off.