TOPICS > Politics

The End Is Near

February 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Before Senate deliberations resumed this morning, majority leader Trent Lott said his original hope of holding the two impeachment votes later in the day had dimmed.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: Our best guess at this time leaves approximately 37 senators still intending to speak. It’s possible that we could conclude and have the final votes this afternoon or late this evening, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible at this time.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Lott said the votes would be held near mid-day tomorrow. Since yesterday, a number of senators chose to go public with the impeachment statements they delivered during the closed deliberations. The Republican statements are significant because they give an early indication of the ultimate vote counts. Several moderate Republicans, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, announced their intentions to acquit the president.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Under Scottish law, there are three possible verdicts: Guilty, not guilty and not proved, and I intend to vote not proved as to both articles. That is not to say that the president is not guilty, but to specifically say that the charges, in my judgment, have not been proved.

KWAME HOLMAN: John Chafee of Rhode Island made a similar statement.

SEN. JOHN CHAFFEE: Now the first decision we must make is: Does perjury, as charged in Article I, and the obstruction of justice, as charged in Article II, meet the standards of high crimes and misdemeanors as conceived by the framers? I believe, if satisfactorily proven, these two crimes do meet the standards that the framers were thinking of. The difficulty with each of the charges in Article II is that circumstantial evidence in each of these cases is rebutted by direct evidence or by confusion that leaves us saying this is very murky and makes me question whether it warrants removing the President of the United States from office. Absent the proof that I find necessary to justify the removal of a president, I will vote to acquit on both articles.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Vermont’s Jim Jeffords said he, too, would vote to acquit. “The facts and circumstances of this case are lowly and tawdry but these circumstances do not, in my opinion, cause his offenses to rise to the level of impeachable acts.” However, Washington State’s Slade Gorton said he would vote to acquit the president on the perjury charge, but to convict on the obstruction of justice charge. “It is clear that he obstructed justice. Because of that, he should be removed from office, and I will vote this week to do just that.” Dick Lugar of Indiana will vote to convict the president on both counts. He stated: “The crimes committed here demonstrate that he is capable of lying routinely whenever it is convenient. He is not trustworthy.” Today Wayne Allard of Colorado announced his intentions.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD, (R) Colorado: I’ve decided to vote guilty on both the articles of impeachment. I think that the fact the president lied under oath is quite evident. I also believe the evidence is very strong that there was an obstruction of justice. And it’s after a good deal of deliberation and thought on my part. I truly went into this process with my mind open, and I do believe that I kept my oath to stay impartial through the trial. I listened carefully to both sides, looked at the facts, spent a good deal of time studying what was part of the record, and I came to the final conclusion that I needed to vote guilty on both those articles.

KWAME HOLMAN: Also this afternoon, Gordon Smith of Oregon said how he would vote.

SEN. GORDON SMITH, (R) Oregon: I do not believe for a minute that the president is going to be removed from office. But when the chief justice calls my name and asks, “Senator, how say ye,” I will say guilty twice, because I refuse to say that high political polls and soaring Wall Street indexes gives license to those in high places act in low and illegal ways. Perjury and obstruction of justice are high crimes and they are utterly inconsistent with any federal office, but especially with the office of President of the United States. Everywhere I turned, I just had to suspend my common sense too much too often, on too many turns in this road to find him innocent. And I deeply regret, but I feel deep peace in the conclusion that I have made to find him guilty.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said he too will vote for both articles. Hagel wrote: “How can the rule of law for every American be applied equally if we have to standards of justice in America – one for the powerful and the other for the rest of us?” Only one Democrat read his statement today. In arguing against both impeachment articles, Jack Reed of Rhode Island sounded a conciliatory note, calling tomorrow’s votes the end of a wearisome road.

SEN. JACK REED, (D) Rhode Island: The journey emanated from the reckless conduct of William Jefferson Clinton. But the passage has also exposed vicious political partisanship and the reckless and relentless exploitation of the powers of the independent counsel. In the midst of this dishonor, deception, and rancor, we could have easily lost our way, but we have reached this moment because we have been guided by the constitution, and inspired by the common sense and common decency of the American people. And with such a guide, and such inspiration, we will do justice with our votes, whether they be to convict or to acquit.

KWAME HOLMAN: With the expectation of near- perfect Democratic solidarity against conviction, the focus now is on whether either article of impeachment will receive even a simple majority vote.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, with the Senate votes on impeachment less than 24 hours away, we get some observations on the state of play, from Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant and David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard. Welcome back, gentlemen. Just as we were coming on the air, two Republicans who have been considered to be in play announced their intentions. Olympia Snowe of Maine said she would vote to acquit on both articles. Robert Bennett of Utah said he would vote to convict on both. What do you make of these statements, Tom? What does that tell us where it is going to end?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, the last two are the most interesting. Olympia Snowe, who I don’t think was in huge doubt, but nonetheless her announcement takes the maximum number available for conviction on the obstruction of justice article to 51. Senator Bennett’s announcement, I think, is a guide for wavering Republicans seeking to hold the line. And I think more than a few will follow him because he, like Senator Snowe, has truly lived out the meaning of his oath to do impartial justice. But 51 and holding and a huge effort underway now by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to hold it at that — and Olympia Snowe’s junior colleague, Susan Collins, is the object of most of the attention tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. The North shall rise again. If you look at the defectors from the Republican ranks, you’ve got Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, a semi-defection in Alaska, maybe it’s the influence of Canada on all these people. So it’s the split in the Republican Party and then you’ve got the fantastic statement from Arlen Specter invoking the Scottish law that he will vote not proven. He will come out in a kilt, bagpipes and do the whole thing. So Arlen Specter was distinguished by his own idiosyncratic gesture but basically it’s the split in the Republican Party between the northeastern moderates and the southern and western part of the party.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Tom, we’ve been hearing over the course of these weeks from so many Republicans that they really were not put under any pressure. They weren’t being whipped – as they would say. When did this start with the majority leader?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, in the most direct sense, factually, it started yesterday afternoon as the intentions of the first three Republicans to vote not guilty became known, Specter, Jeffords, and Chafee. At that point Sen. Lott did a very interesting thing. He authorized a release of the statement in effect pronouncing the president guilty. That was sort of like his statement two days ago opposing suspending the rules to open these proceedings. It signaled his position, number one, as Republican leader, and secondly, it stopped momentum. I think there might have been one or two more yesterday afternoon had Senator Lott not acted. It had an additional effect, I believe, in that it sent a signal to all the political forces outside the Senate and outside Washington to start ginning up the phone calls and the faxes and all the rest of it. There has been activity on the Democratic side as well, so that in some ways the atmosphere tonight in the Senate is not much different than the atmosphere around the House in December, and I take that to mean ugly.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I wonder how much that will work, though. If you look at the most moderate members of the Republican Party, the most liberal, the least conservative as rated by the National Journal, you get Jeffords, Chafee, Specter. Those are the first three defectors. These are people – all this top ten – are people who like being independent. I’m not sure they are going to be responding to party discipline – and why — why, being moderate on taxes or on the social issues should translate automatically and so reliably into being for acquittal is a mystery. What is in the mind of the Republican moderates that these things correlate so perfectly. I can’t answer that question.

TOM OLIPHANT: Of course, more broadly the question about this whole case is what is it about this case that causes the opinion about it to be based solely on one’s position almost on the ideological spectrum but I think there is a clue for the senators other than these, this small number of Republicans. And I think Slade Gorton was the clue along with Senator Stevens of Alaska, and that is to the position that you might call splitting the ticket — voting to acquit on perjury and to convict on obstruction of justice. I don’t think those two senators’ positions will be the last we hear on this. They are focusing on a large number of senators tonight, maybe seven to ten. And I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them end up splitting their vote.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it really that important politically or for historical reasons for the House managers to win, at least a majority, I mean on one of the articles? Why is that so important?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know because we’re all used to the number 50. I mean, we are used to that number. That’s usually the winning number so if you get over 50, that’s winning somehow even though here it’s losing. I think it is bit of false drama – all that –

TOM OLIPHANT: It’s mostly our fault, I think. I mean –

MARGARET WARNER: You had to put some drama in –

TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. We had to have something. I mean, I continue to believe devoutly that two weeks from now no one remembers the vote in the House except a few of us junkies. Two weeks from now I’ll be amazed if people remember it was 48 or 51 in the Senate. We play a role often in this age in creating artificial drama and I think this is a classic case.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there any Democrats in play or believed to be in play?

DAVID BROOKS: Not seriously. Robert Byrd was a thought. But if you go through the list and the statements of the Democrats, it runs the gamut from A to B. There is not — not there.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, David, today there was another big political flap over a story in the New York Times this morning suggesting or saying that president was so angry at the House Republicans, particularly at the managers, that he was determined to help elect a Democratic House in 2000. Trent Lott — speaking of Trent Lott’s statements — put out a statement late this afternoon – one sentence — “It is deeply troubling that the president views closure of this constitutional process as an opportunity for revenge.” What do you make of this?

DAVID BROOKS: The Times story said he would go after the House managers and the White House has been backing off that all day. I don’t shed a lot of tears for Bill Clinton but I almost felt a little sorry for him today because you got the sense of him angry. Wants to go out and campaign. He’s going to – had another cause – he’s going to have another victory and somebody will tap him on the shoulder and say your time is over. It’s Al Gore’s time. But nevertheless, it’s a sense of vigor in the Democratic Party — People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group launching another campaign, trying to gin up that kind of –

TOM OLIPHANT: Though I think it was also a sense of a – of perhaps a human emotion, namely bitterness and anger, that a president ought not let show. And I think it hurt the atmosphere today. You could sense it. And it has been going on for some days now. I thought that the impact of leaks from Janet Reno’s Justice Department about their intentions about Ken Starr was very ugly in this atmosphere with the trial going on, just as some of the actions of Ken Starr in the last couple of weeks, have indicated that he too, is trying to push it. It seems like nobody at the end was able to leave their mitts off this process.

DAVID BROOKS: Especially on the day when Republicans are defecting. You come and poke them in the eye that way. It’s the way politics is.

MARGARET WARNER: So why do you think it happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are some angry people. Bill Clinton has shown the ability to be angry and contrite at the same moment and these two things war in his soul.

TOM OLIPHANT: I am told that every once in awhile it just comes naturally bursting out of him. I mean, these are definitely his feelings. But sometimes a part of national leadership is suppressing the way you feel and in this case he failed.

MARGARET WARNER: And he’ll have to be quite careful, will he not tomorrow, David, when he is supposed to make a statement after the vote not to let anything –

DAVID BROOKS: Right. This will be the hair trigger mechanism, the sign of gloating and bongo drums and cigars. We’ll all be on the lookout.

TOM OLIPHANT: I don’t know if the inner peace of Senator Smith’s is catching but –

MARGARET WARNER: We’ve got to hope so. Thank you both very much. See you tomorrow.