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The Senate’s Turn

January 7, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now four of the 100 U.S. Senators who participated in today’s opening day: two Republicans, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and two Democrats, Harry Reid of Nevada, the Minority Whip, and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Cochran, from a Republican perspective, can you summarize where matters stand now in terms of how and when the proceedings will go on from this point?

SEN. THAD COCHRAN, (R) Mississippi: The Senate is in the process of deciding upon a schedule for the presentation of the case by the House managers and what motions will be in order and when we may expect to have votes on any such motions, and when we will get a vote on the articles of impeachment themselves.

JIM LEHRER: And this 9:30 meeting of its caucus, a bipartisan caucus in the old Senate chamber, that is designed to do what?

SEN. THAD COCHRAN: We are hoping to explore the possibility of an agreement on this schedule proceeding to consider the articles of impeachment. We thought we had an agreement earlier today, and it broke down over the issue of witnesses. The Democrats wanted us to agree that we would prohibit any witnesses being called. We thought that was unfair to the House managers and to the White House too, to try to decide in advance of the trial whether there should be witnesses. We think there ought to be a cause made for calling witnesses, but the Senate’s going to decide the admissibility of all the evidence, whether it’s relevant, material, or redundant. And we’ll make decisions on the objections, if any, to the evidence when the objections are raised.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Reid, did Senator Cochran correctly characterize the Democratic position, you all are against calling any witnesses?

SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Whip: Well, I think there are a lot of problems today developed. I’m hopeful and I think the Democratic Caucus is totally unified. The problem we’ve had during the past week or ten days has been the Republican Caucus has had some trouble deciding among themselves what they want. We know what we want. Forty-five Democrats believe that we should have an expedited procedure, that it should be bipartisan in nature, and it should be one that at the end resolves this very distasteful issue for all of us. Now, the problem today was not only that regarding witnesses; it involved some other problems in the proposals given to us. It wasn’t one proposal. There were many proposals submitted during the day. I am hopeful and confident that maybe tomorrow we all join together and we can sit down and agree. I’ve had friends from the other side of the aisle – Republicans who have said to me let’s work together on this. And so we’ve had a lot of talk among each other. It’s time for all of us to sit down and find out if we can arrive at a common goal, that is, do something bipartisan, which would certainly be something different than took place in the House. I mean, I don’t think we can talk about going forward with something as important and as unusual as impeaching a President of the United States on a partisan basis. It must be bipartisan. We have 60,000 pages of report that the House has, and before we have witnesses – and we can certainly have witnesses, but there must be some kind of a showing for witnesses when we already start out with 60,000 pages.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Hutchison, are you hopeful that a deal can be made here, that an agreement can be made between you Republicans and the Democrats?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: Yes. I am hopeful. I think it would be very good if we could decide tomorrow on a process that is fair to the president, fair to the House of Representatives, and keeps the integrity of the constitutional process. It is very important that we move ahead and try to give everyone the right they deserve and then we put some sort of time limit or at least a parameter around there so that we can come to an end and go forward with the business of the country.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel – where do you come down on the witness issue?

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Well, actually, I think what Harry Reid just said is where many of us are, and that is that we need to hear the presentations and then make a determination about witnesses, and that has been the Republican proposal. Many of the Republicans and the Democrats are not sure if there is going to be some piece of evidence that is in disagreement that might need to have a witness on a narrow issue be questioned in front of the Senate. And I think we can come to terms, and I think we’re not as far apart as perhaps you might think.

JIM LEHRER: So this one step at a time, Sen. Hutchison, first of all, say the House managers would lay out their case, the president and – the president’s lawyers would lay out the defense, and then the decision would be made by you, the senators, as to whether or not any witnesses needed to be called, is that -

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Jim, that’s exactly right. But there is also a two-day period of questioning after the presentation, so you will have a very full presentation, and I think everyone will be able to make the judgment if there is a void that can only be filled with a questioning of a witness.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan, could you buy that?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN, (D) North Dakota: Well, I think we’ll reach agreement, or at least I hope we’ll reach an agreement tomorrow, Jim. This is a sober and daunting task, and I – you know, it is not easy to reach agreement, but I think both sides are struggling very hard here. We want to do this in a bipartisan way. We want to conduct this trial, which we’re required to do by the Constitution, with some dignity. We want to do it thoroughly. But I’ll tell you, at least speaking for myself, I want to get through this and make a judgment, as we’re required to do. I can’t conceive of a reason that the House managers who chose not to call witnesses, because they didn’t believe they needed to have witnesses in the House, would now want to call Monica Lewinsky to the well of the Senate and begin that long trail; I think that would take months to go through. My hope is that we’ll be able to do this without calling witnesses, present the evidence, you know, in great detail, but then proceed through and do our job. I think that’s certainly possible.

JIM LEHRER: Does that mean, Senator Dorgan, that you would not agree with the plan that Sen. Hutchison just outlined, in other words, the idea that take it one step at a time first – yes, go ahead.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: We may end at that point. I mean, she’s not – Sen. Hutchison didn’t say that she insists that witnesses be called. I think what I heard her say is that let’s have a presentation by the House managers, let’s then have a presentation by the White House, we’ll have questions, and so on. At that point then we will make a decision about whether there will be witnesses, and there needs to be some blueprint as we begin this process. That’s what the struggle has been about today. What exactly is that blueprint and plan? My hope is that with the joint caucus tomorrow we’ll send a signal to the country that all of us understand our obligation to do this in a bipartisan and a dignified way.

JIM LEHRER: So you Democrats then are not insisting that there be a decision made before the presentations that no witnesses ever be called?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Well, frankly, I would support the – Sen. Slade Gorton-Lieberman proposal, which set out a specific approach by which we decided these issues, and that would not have provided for witnesses. I support that proposal. But we’ll have a discussion tomorrow in the joint caucus about all of this, and my hope is that we can reconcile all these positions and demonstrate to the country that we can do this. We’ll start. We’ll go through this, and we’re not going to subject the country to a four-month torturous trial. That’s not in the best interest of this country, in my judgment-

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, earlier this week it was pretty clear to all of us that we thought we had a deal; we thought that we had worked things out, and we did it through a Democrat, Joe Lieberman, and Republican, Slade Gorton. And that was a proposal where we would have one day of presentation by the House managers; we have one day of presentation by the White House; and you would have one day that the Senators could ask questions and the next day there would be a vote. Now, that fell apart for reasons I fully don’t understand. But it did fall apart. We Democrats are still willing to be reasonable but working within the frame work of the bipartisan proposal – the Lieberman-Gorton proposal – we may have to extend the days that each has time to make their presentation; we may have to make some changes; and I – but we’re willing to be reasonable. We want there to be a bipartisan solution to this. I repeat – and I do this within only the best of intentions – we Democrats know what we want – we need to meet with Republicans tomorrow to see if they can finally determine what they want so we can agree with them and offer to move this matter forward.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Cochran, is Sen. Reid right, the problem is that you Republicans don’t know what you want?

SEN. THAD COCHRAN: No. I think we want fairness; we want a trial that considers all of the relevant evidence that the House wants to present to the Senate. We want to have an opportunity for each senator to offer questions to the House managers, and when the White House puts on its case treat them the same way. What we are seeking is a way that gets at the truth. We think that’s what this process is about, not partisanship, not what’s best for the Democrats, or not what’s best for the White House, or the Republicans for that matter. We all took an oath today to do impartial justice, and I think what’s what we sincerely intend to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you sign on with Senator Hutchison, in a general way, to the idea – to repeat it one more time – that the House managers put on their case, the president puts on his case, and then there is a decision made by the Senate as to whether or not witnesses are called?

SEN. THAD COCHRAN: That’s correct. That’s the proposal that’s being offered by the Republicans that has been rejected by the Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Is that true, Senator Reid? You rejected that?

SEN. HARRY REID: No, I don’t think that’s true, Jim. I’ve been in the meetings, along with Sen. Dorgan and others, for about six or seven hours today. And there’s been a series of proposals — not one proposal, not two proposals, not three proposals, but at least four proposals we’ve received from the Republicans today. Now we want to work together. We think this should be a bipartisan solution. We understand, as Thad has said, the solemnity of the oath we took. It’s the first time it’s been given in the Senate in 130 years. So we hope in the morning at 9:30 in the Old Senate Chambers. We can resolve our differences — that is, to have an expeditious proceeding, have all the evidence heard, but do it in a bipartisan fashion and have some end time in mind when we complete it.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Hutchison, you wanted to say something.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Yes. I just wanted to respectfully say the Republican plan has been the same. Sen. Lott asked Sen. Gorton and Sen. Lieberman to try to come up with a proposal as a starting point; they did that. Then the Republican caucus yesterday had a very long meeting, and we are quite united. And we’ve had one plan that is exactly what I have just stated and what Sen. Cochran has agreed is our plan. And we have not moved the ball. And we’ve been quite sincere in trying to accommodate the wishes of the House and the president in the process.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Dorgan, finally here, we all watched – all of America watched as the 100 of you went to the well of the Senate this morning, after saying I will in terms of the oath and signed your names. Was it as dramatic an event for you individually as it appeared, as we were all watching?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: It was. I mean, people were solemn. Everyone understood the responsibility. You could hear a pin drop in the Senate today, which is very unusual. This is a very sobering responsibility for everyone. Can I get back finally just to one final point? You know, we’ve got people worried about the Senate moving too quickly here. I mean, that – you know, the House managers are saying, you know, we need time; we don’t want the Senate — look, no one has ever accused the Senate of speeding or following too closely. The Senate is not going to move too quickly. That’s not the way the Senate works. But we do want to have a process by which we get through this. I don’t want to have a circumstance where this becomes a spectacle and for three or four or five months the American people are treated to a Senate trial that goes on and on and on. This record is quite clear. The House managers didn’t want witnesses. They said they didn’t need them. I don’t now think they need to foist them on the Senate. And the decision is going to be the Senate’s. And I think Thad and Kay and Harry and I and others, I think we can get together and make some sense of this. And I think we’ll do the right thing in the end, and we’ll do it together. And that’s what the American people will want.

JIM LEHRER: You think it is going to work tomorrow, you’re going to come up with a bipartisan way to do it?

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: I have hope that will be the case.

JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll see. Thank you all four very much.