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Nearing an End?

February 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: An impeachment trial update from four senators: Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Richard Shelby of Alabama; Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York. First a quick go-around on the depositions question. Senator Shelby, have you gone and listened and watched the deposition of Monica Lewinsky?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I have — and also Vernon Jordan today. I’ve been through two out of the three.

JIM LEHRER: And then are you going to do Blumenthal tomorrow?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Senator McConnell, have you — where do you stand on looking at them?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I’ve seen Lewinsky. Tomorrow I’m going to look at Jordan and Blumenthal.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I plan on seeing all three tomorrow. We have staff review and excerpts that we’re going to be taking a look at tomorrow morning.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Schumer?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I’ve seen Jordan and Lewinsky and plan to see Blumenthal tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, based on what you’ve seen, do you think the two you have seen thus far should be called as live witnesses before the Senate?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I don’t think so. I didn’t believe they would add a lot that we didn’t already have in the record before they were deposed. After seeing the first two out of the three, my view, in my judgment, it is not going to change anything. He would only prolong a trial. He will not furnish any substantial evidence or explosive evidence that we — perhaps the thought the House managers were looking for.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, where do you come down on the live witness question?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I’m going to make that decision tomorrow, Jim, after taking a look at the other two depositions.

JIM LEHRER: You haven’t made it yet?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Haven’t made it yet.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, Senator Schumer?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I, having seen these two witnesses and this is my third time going through this, first on the House Judiciary Committee then on the floor of the House, and now here, I have not heard any new evidence over the last six months and don’t see any purpose to bringing people live in the well of the Senate. It would impair the dignity of the Senate, or might and at the same time brings us nothing knew.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I’ll reserve my judgment until I’ve seen them personally, but I can tell you what you’ve heard from Senator Schumer and Senator Shelby is what most of my colleagues have told me. There’s been nothing add to this record by these depositions. I think the House Republican managers were hoping for some breakthrough evidence, but apparently there was none there.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Next question that you all may have to vote on this tomorrow or Friday — Senator, beginning with you, Senator Durbin, what about making these depositions on tape or in transcript form public?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Transcript form I don’t have any objection to. And I think frankly that that will serve all the purpose that needs to be served. It just strikes me that the House Republican managers are going to push the envelope. How far can they go? If they can’t bring live witnesses, how about videotape? I think there’s a more important baseline question. Will this really add to any effort for the search of truth? Will it help any Senator make up his or her mind? From what I’ve heard so far, I don’t think it will. And I think we should keep in mind if we’re going to complete this by the anticipated date, we don’t want to prolong this if it’s not really coming up with new evidence.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, make them public?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think in all likelihood the videotapes would be made part of the record. We voted to allow them to be taken, and the chances are we will make them part of the record.

JIM LEHRER: You favor that, Senator Shelby?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, ultimately I believe it should be made part of the record, and after that there will have to with a decision made whether to release a lot of the record. A lot of it is already out there.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Schumer, how do you feel about the depositions being made public?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, my initial reaction was, again, it wouldn’t serve any new purpose. Having seen two of them today, I don’t think much harm would be made from making them public down the road, but I would join me colleague Senator Durbin – and I wouldn’t want this to add to any sort of theater of this — and so not much harm in doing it but you’d have to show what good it would do, as well.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that, Senator McConnell, that the good point would have to be made before a decision would be made, or do you think that position, that point has already been made?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I may decide that, but frankly my current leaning is that this is a part of the trial. All of the trial so far has been public. And I think the presumption ought to be in favor of making it a part of the record, and if it’s a part of the record, ultimately it will be released.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, the next question before you all is this finding of fact issue. Senator McConnell, now, as I understand it, you’re a part of a committee or a group of Republican Senators that the Majority Leader asked to take a look at that. Where does that stand now?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, the genesis of this discussion was the feeling that censure really is something we should not do. We’d be doing that later in legislative session in any event but a simple finding of facts, which a wide number of members of congress already agree, regardless of how they feel about whether the president should be removed from office, I think makes a lot of sense. If we went forward with a finding of fact, it would reach no legal conclusions. So it is quite different from the votes on the articles. I lean in favor of doing that. Of course, it depends on what the final language is.

JIM LEHRER: And that would be done before a vote on the articles themselves, correct?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: That’s right. It would not be instead of the vote. The trial would still end as it should end.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: With the vote on the two articles of impeachment.

JIM LEHRER: But it could be passed by a majority, rather than a two-thirds required on the articles themselves?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Senator Shelby?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I think it’s playing around with the Constitution. Some of our greatest constitutional scholars have said it’s unconstitutional, and we know it’s not the precedent of the Andrew Johnson trial 131 years ago. I believe if you believe that Bill Clinton at the end of the day after we’ve heard all the evidence, heard all the arguments, that you believe that he’s guilty of Article I or Article II or both, that you ought to vote yes. And that would be a vote of conviction, a vote of guilt. If you believe that they haven’t made the case totally or if you believe there’s some doubts, then you vote no. I believe it’s an up or down vote. And this is a way to try to get around it. I say let’s stay with precedent and let’s stay with a clear reading of the Constitution.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, what about that argument?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, that’s certainly the argument that will be made against it. Richard has made it very skillfully. It is not prohibited by the Constitution. Nor is it mandated by the Constitution. The parliamentarian of the senate feels it’s proper to do this if 51 senators want to do it. It is different from voting on an article of impeachment because it reach no conclusion, no legal conclusion. It simply states facts that we have a substantial reason to believe occurred.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Durbin, we’ve just heard this disagreement between two Republicans. Senator Daschle, your leader, the minority leader pretty well said very clearly that you Democrats are opposed to any finding of the fact. Was he speaking for you?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Yes, he was.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, I think I saw you standing right behind him as he said that, correct?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Yes, I was. And I tell you — this is a serious mistake. The findings of fact are not authorized by the Constitution. They’ve not been used before. Senator Robert Byrd — in an opinion piece today in the Washington Post — spelled out clearly the constitutional danger of embarking on this effort to provide some political cover to our colleagues. I hope, as Senator Shelby does, that we stick to the strict letter of the Constitution. We have a responsibility — either convict or acquit the President of the United States. This so-called impeachment-like — this idea of voting findings of fact by majority vote and ignoring the clear mandate of the Constitution that it takes two-thirds vote to remove the president, I think, is a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: I assume, Senator Schumer, you agree with that?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: I do.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re three to one, sorry about that Senator McConnell. But do you think it’s going to put your, Senator McConnell, put your own position aside — do you think this is going to pass tomorrow? Do you think — when it comes to a vote?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: This won’t be dealt with tomorrow. I don’t know whether it will pass or not. I happen to think it’s an idea with considerable merit. But it will not be dealt with tomorrow, I don’t think.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think — make of Senator Daschle’s point that we ran in the news summary a while ago, that if this does pass or if there’s an effort made to pass it, first of all he is going to filibuster it with amendments because he thinks that would make it, he says, “that would truly turn this into a Republican trial rather than a Senate trial.” How do you respond to that?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, my friends on the Democratic side have been saying we ought to wrap this trial up. I don’t know why they’d want to delay it by filibustering.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Would you go along with a filibuster Senator Durbin and Senator Schumer?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, I think we’d have to cross that bridge when we come to it. I think Senator Daschle was expressing our feeling, which I think is pretty unanimous within the Democratic Caucus, that this findings of facts is a cop-out; that you have to step up to the plate — if you believe what the president did merits removing from office, vote for it. If you don’t, vote against it. And coming up with some kind of sort of down the middle or middle-of-the-road type proposition here is really not what the founding fathers wanted was a they wanted impeachment to be the most serious of processes; otherwise they wouldn’t have had a two-thirds vote; otherwise they wouldn’t have been putting it within all the constrictions that we have seen; otherwise it would — our worry is that if this happens, then future House of Representatives would be tempted to impeach the president and then they’d say, “see, you can just do findings of fact by a majority vote.” You don’t have to throw him out of office and really degrade the impeachment process.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I believe it would be a terrible precedent. And we don’t know what the political landscape will look like in five years, ten years, but majority vote to do this, I think, it just runs right into the Constitution.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Jim, if I may.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Yeah, the Democrats, the majority of them want to do a censure resolution, which many of us feel is bad idea to go around censuring the President of the United States. It was done once, and repealed, expunged from the record after Andrew Jackson was censured, they expunged it from the record three years later: You know, the Democrats want to have it both ways, too. They want to vote against the articles of impeachment and then come back later and vote for a censure and say, “see, we disapproved of the conduct.”

JIM LEHRER: Beginning with you, Senator McConnell, just go to the bottom line here. Have you decided how you’re going to vote on the articles of impeachment? Are you ready to do that?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I’m going to do it next week when it’s appropriate to do that. We ought to end this trial with votes on the articles, both sides agree on that. Ed and that’s how this trial will end, no later than next Friday.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re ready to vote?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: As soon as we dispose of these items tomorrow, we’ll be ready to move on to final passage.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, you’re ready to vote?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I’ll be ready to vote, but I do believe the process ought to work. And we should listen to the arguments. We should listen carefully because sometimes people change their mind. But at the end of the day, we all better be there to vote.

JIM LEHRER: You’re ready to vote, Senator Durbin?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I can tell you, I voted for the motion to dismiss. I did not think the House Republican Managers made a convincing case that the president had committed the crimes necessary that they argue are a predicate to his impeachment. Unless something absolutely devastating comes out in these depositions, and my colleagues suggest it will not, then I will be voting to acquit the president.

JIM LEHRER: And what about you, Senator Schumer, you’re going to vote to acquit?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Yes, I’ve had that position, barring new evidence. Obviously if new evidence were to come out over the next week or whenever we vote, you’d have to reassess, but I think it’s been pretty clear, and clear not only to a majority of the American people, but my guess is to a majority of Senators, that whatever the President did, and it clearly was something very wrong, it does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, as the Constitution requires, and therefore I would vote to acquit.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McConnell, is it – would it be a mistake to interpret your support for findings of fact as a sign that you also do not believe it goes to high crimes and misdemeanors, that you’re prepared to vote for acquittal?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I wouldn’t reach that conclusion. I think we ought to do the findings of fact wholly aside from how we may ultimately vote on the articles, Jim. I think it makes a lot of sense in this particular situation.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let me quickly finally and beginning with you Senator McConnell, I assume all of you have seen this CBS/New York Times poll which says 76 percent of the American people believe you Republicans and Democrats are not working together to conduct a fair and impartial trial. What do you think of that, Senator McConnell, that kind of result?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I’m sorry the people feel that way, but the good news for us is the election is 22 months from now. And I think there’s no chance whatsoever that this will be an issue in the 2,000 election.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, does it surprise you that people feel this way about what you all are doing?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: That’s a pretty high number there. A lot of us have been trying to work in a bipartisan fashion here as much as we can knowing that people will differ at the end of the day on the interpretation of evidence and differ on votes. I think the sooner we can close this, let the process work, vote it up or down, we’re all going to be better off in America.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin and Senator Schumer, beginning with you Senator Durbin, does this result surprise you that the people feel this way?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: No, it doesn’t. We set a pretty high standard when we agreed 100 to nothing on a bipartisan procedure to deal with this trial. And then it fell apart last week. And the American people understood that, that we had failed in our mission to keep this bipartisan. If we continue to have partisan roll calls on the remaining items, that number is going to grow. I hope it doesn’t. I hope we can find a bipartisan basis to end this trial.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Schumer, is that possible?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, I think it is possible. The one thing I would say, having gone through this in the House, where the process was totally acrimonious, it has not been that way in the Senate, we have had our agreements, such as the 100-0 vote. We’ve had our disagreements such as the 56-44 votes we’ve had. But throughout, the thing that has most impressed me is a desire of men and women on both sides of the aisle, including both Senators Shelby and McConnell, to reach out to their colleagues and not let the disagreements become so disagreeable that once this trial ends, and I think it will end in a bipartisan way, in other words I think there are going to be a good number of Republicans voting against removing the president from office, and when we get to a censure resolution, a good number of Democrats voting for it, but once we get to the end, whatever the result is, that we will be able to work together to do the kinds of things that the American people elected us to do, making schools better, preserving Social Security, et cetera.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, all four, thank you very much.