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Talking It Over

February 9, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, with the impeachment trial in its final phase, we get the perspectives of four senators: Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Democrats Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

MARGARET WARNER: Welcome senators. Senator Hutchison, give us a flavor of what the deliberations have been like now that the doors are closed.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: I think the American people would be very proud to hear the debate. I think that it is important, I was very disappointed that we were not able to do it. I think that history requires it and I certainly think the American people today deserve it.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chafee, you were one of those who voted to have the doors closed. Has there been the kind of give and take that proponents of keeping the doors closed thought would occur?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE, (R) Rhode Island: What I was seeking was to move the process along so that we’d be able to have enough time at the end for a censure resolution. It was absolutely certain that if we went to open session, everybody would take close to their 15 minutes. That’s 1,500 minutes, that’s 25 hours and we wouldn’t — we could not have gotten to the censure resolution, which I feel so strongly about. I think the tenor in the chamber is with the doors closed is excellent, you can hear a pin drop in there, everybody is listening carefully. It’s quite different from our open sessions but the real reason I wanted it closed was so we could move along and have time for the censure.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Wellstone, can you give as you little more of what it’s like in there? For instance, are you getting the feeling most senators have definitely made up their mine minds and are giving serial speeches, or is there back and forth?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE, (D) Minnesota: Well, there isn’t really back and forth. I think senators now have really reached their own conclusions and people are speaking. But – you know what, Margaret – I have to smile and say to John people are taking their 15-minute limit. Chris reminded me when Senator Lott talked about the Gettysburg Address by President Lincoln, it was three minutes. But he gave it in public. I think we’d be far better off having our final deliberations and debate in public. For gosh sake, we’re voting on the question of whether or not we’re to remove a president from office and in a representative democracy, we shouldn’t be doing this behind closed doors. This should be an open, accountable process.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senator Dodd, let’s move on to the articles themselves. What sense do you get of how the final vote is going to break out break down?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, (D) Connecticut: I don’t know that. I must say I think during all of this an awful lot of people have kept their own counsel. I know that Tom Daschle, our leader, and I suspect the same is true with Trent Lott, my Republican colleagues can comment on this, have never once asked members how they would vote or urge that there be some sort of a caucus position. And so I wouldn’t want to predict for you this evening, we’ve had some sense already, we’ve heard about 12 or 14 speeches and so there’s some sense among certainly those members who have declared how they’re going to vote but obviously that’s in private session, so I know what they’re going to do but, unfortunately, their constituents don’t at this point, nor do you or the American public. They’ll have to wait until the final deliberations, the vote is called, and then at some point later read their remarks in the Congressional Record. I wouldn’t want to predict for you what the outcome would be – the exact votes. I don’t think there are enough votes to convict. It doesn’t seem to be even close to that number. But beyond that I wouldn’t want to speculate.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, do you think you’re going to have any Democratic defections?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: I really don’t know. I can’t tell you that. It would be highly inappropriate for me to even speculate how my colleagues might vote. They can speak for themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hutchison, Senator Shelby of Alabama said this weekend that he did think that Article one, the perjury count, was in trouble, even among some Republicans, and that he thought it would fail to even get 50 votes. I’m not asking to you predict and I’m not asking you to reveal what your colleagues are saying, but do you agree with that general sentiment? And, if so, why? Why is the perjury article in some trouble?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I think perjury is a very difficult burden of proof. First of all, the president certainly was careful in his grand jury testimony. And I think he tried to skirt around a potential perjury charge. But it is a tougher burden, and I think it is going to get fewer votes than the obstruction of justice article.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree with that, Senator Chafee?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: Yes, the perjury thing, particularly with the four counts, one of which is intent, is a tough one to prove. It’s a tough one to — to hang one’s hat on. And as Senator Hutchison said, the president was very, very careful the way he phrased things. And so it’s hard to get intent to deceive out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Dodd, what’s curious is that in the House it was the perjury count that actually — the perjury article that did better. Do you think the managers made just a more effective case on obstruction of justice, an unusually effective case?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: Well, I wouldn’t use the House vote as a barometer. That was a highly partisan event. And I’ve already declared publicly how I feel about all of this. I think, you know, bad cases make bad law. And, obviously, we have to deal with this because the House did impeach, and so it’s in the Senate, we’ve spent the last four weeks doing so. But I would make a strong case to you that this matter never should have come to the Senate. There should have been – in my view — a joint resolution on censure, which was denied to the House members to offer that as an alternative. And so any proceeding in the House which was — I think the American public have pretty much concluded that that process, and I agree with them, was highly partisan event and really should have been enough to cause some people to pause about sending this matter to the Senate for a trial as we’ve gone through.

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: I must say Chris Dodd’s definition of highly partisan is if all the Republicans are on one side, it’s highly partisan. If all the Democrats are on the other side, there’s no partisanship at all. They’re just going down God’s path.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: No, No, John, not at all. No, John, we’ve done it other ways in the past here and I think it’s destructive. They did not go through that. And that was a good instruction.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s get back, if we can, to what’s going on in the Senate. I’m sorry I ever mentioned the House. Senator Wellstone, do you think — given that everyone seems to agree there are not 67 votes to convict on either article, does the margin matter, does the margin matter at all? For instance, can the president claim vindication if let’s say neither article gets 51 votes?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Well, I don’t think the president can claim vindication when it comes to the question of personal behavior, personal conduct, values and I think — and morality. And I don’t for a moment want to act as if that is not important. I think it’s extremely important. And I don’t think it’s a question of vindication at all. I just have to say it’s been a long, sad year for our country. The president has much to be accountable for, but this was — I’ll go to what Chris said, even though John is in sharp opposition. I think the lesson of this story is you don’t go forward with impeachment unless you have the clear burden of proof and you certainly run into trouble if you don’t have bipartisan support and that’s what’s happened here. You don’t have bipartisan support for this. There’s no sense of proportionality to what the House brought before the Senate and the Senate is not going to vote to remove the president from office and people until the country agree. You don’t overturn an election unless there are very compelling reasons. They have not made their case.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chafee, do you think that the vote margin matters, for — either politically or for history?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: No, I don’t think so – I just don’t believe it does. You recounted how some of the votes were in the House. And I don’t think anybody else except for some early aficionado of this business -

MARGARET WARNER: Please, don’t accuse me of that.

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: So the answer is no. But I do feel very, very strongly that the president just shouldn’t get off scot-free with an acquittal vote as apparently is going to occur. They say – I often wonder who that fellow “they” is – but, nonetheless, “they” say he’s going to be acquitted. And if so, I think we should follow up with a censure motion to just show that we don’t condone this type of activity.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I agree with you, John.

MARGARET WARNER: Who was that, Senator Dodd?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: That was Paul.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Wellstone. Yes. Sen. Dodd, I know -

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: I think he agrees too.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: No, I don’t agree. I disagree on a censure.

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: Oh, you do?

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead, Sen. Dodd, because I should explain to our viewers, we have an unusual mix here. Actually, the only person really wholeheartedly opposed to censure here is a Democrat. But go ahead and tell us why.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: And I do so not because this president doesn’t deserve condemnation – certainly impeachment by the House – however illegitimate I think it may be — certainly deserves to be censured in a rhetorical sense, no question about it at all, but I am very uneasy, we’re not thinking enough about the office of the presidency in future occupants.

I think the Constitution warns us about separation of powers, co-equal branches. Censuring presidents has never occurred except once and it was expunged from the record in the case of President Jackson. And, despite other worthwhile cases, if you would, in the past, the Senate and the House have been restrained from engaging in censuring presidents. We’ve done a lot of damage. The president has done damage to the office of the presidency. This is an office which has been battered over the last year. I understand the motivations behind it, I don’t question the motivations behind it, but I offer and wish that my colleagues would think long and hard before we engage in a process here that could be repeated in the future and less meritorious cases and we would destabilize – these were Pat Moynihan’s words — the office the presidency. And we ought to think long and hard before we do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hutchison where do you come down on the prospect of a censure resolution?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I’m torn as many people are because I am very worried that we are sending a signal in this country by not getting a two-thirds vote for conviction that somehow the standards for perjury and obstruction of justice are less because the president has done these things and has not been convicted. I don’t want that to be the message. And I think it is the foundation of our criminal justice system. So many people are looking for a way to show that this isn’t correct behavior and with all due respect to my colleagues, we didn’t cause the stain on the presidency. The president caused the stain on the presidency. He misbehaved, he drug this out month after money after month when he could have come to closure on it either by admitting that he lied and asking for forgiveness, or by resigning in an honorable resignation. He did neither of those. So I think we are now toward the end. I’m glad we are. But nobody is really happy with the final result of an acquittal.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Margaret, could I chime in here? Paul.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: You know– I think I disagree with Kay, though. We’ve certainly worked hard on opening up the process. You know, I don’t think it’s a question of a different standard. This case has been full of inferences but, you know, it’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to treat the president the same way do every other citizen. Frankly, I don’t think the case has been made. It’s important for me to say that. None of the charges are charges that we don’t take seriously but I don’t think — the burden of proof has been on the House managers — and I don’t think they have met that standard. My other point is I think many constitutional scholars, Chris, believe that we certainly can go into legislative session-

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: Well, we can do — I’m not arguing about the Constitution.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: And, you know, Senator Moynihan, himself, favors this, though he worries about the presidency. And I do worry that we will conclude our proceeding and then not have a statement by the Senate, which is very strong in its disapproval, condemnation of the president’s personal conduct. I believe we should go on record with that.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: I don’t argue about the constitutionality.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me get Senator Chafee in on this because you said you supported some kind of censure but one of your colleagues, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, has suggested that he would filibuster any move to even consider it. Is that a strong feeling in the Republican caucus?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: I don’t think it’s as strong as Senator Gramm from Texas has voiced it. But it’s true the caucus is hardly unanimous on this subject. But it seems to me we come to the censure resolution after the other part’s been completed. That doesn’t mean we wait a week, but we take our votes on the impeachment matter, the trial, and if indeed it should turn out to be acquittal, well then we go to their censure resolution, which I think is terribly important. I hate to leave the thing up in the air, leave the president completely vindicated. And that’s the way the situation will appear.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think you can defeat, though, a filibuster?

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: I don’t know. Obviously you need 60 votes to do that. And we’ll have to see.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And Senator Dodd, one last quick question. Even though you oppose censure, would you support your fellow Democrats in at least getting it considered?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: Yes. I wouldn’t deny my colleagues the opportunity to bring it up. And I don’t think it’s unconstitutional — as Paul and John have pointed out — this would be done in the legislative session. And certainly, we have the right to pass sense of the Senate resolutions on whatever we want. But I think we ought to take note of the fact that every other preceding congress, over 105 of them, have accepted one occasion, which they have rescinded, have avoided the temptation of censuring from the congress on single House resolutions of the presidency. We don’t censure the Supreme Court, the White House can’t censure the congress. That separation of powers is very important. We have a strong presidency, even though weak people have occupied that office; we don’t want to destabilize it, in my view.

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: But this is only the second time -

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Senators -

SEN. JOHN CHAFEE: — this is only the second time we’ve had a president impeached.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: Well, I don’t think it’s — it’s dangerous to do it, in my view.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much. And good luck with your deliberations.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: There you have it, Margaret.