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The Freshmen View

January 12, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Senator Voinovich, in general terms, do you agree with what Senator Byrd just said about what’s at stake and what’s involved in all of this?

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH: I agree, and I just wish that I was as eloquent as Senator Byrd. He has been the most impressive person that I’ve come in contact with since I’ve been elected to the United States Senate and one of the things that Evan and I had the privilege of doing was to hear Senator Byrd talk to us about the institution of the Senate and its importance and the role that it plays in the Constitution and the balance of power, and I think he’s been a very, very good influence on both Republicans and Democrats here in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Senator Bayh?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Absolutely, Jim. Senator Byrd is a national treasure, and he reminded us very eloquently at a time like this we’re not Democrats or Republicans, we’re Americans, and the test here needs to be not whether our decisions, how they will be viewed the day after we make them but how they’ll be viewed fifty years, a hundred years after we make them. The test is not so much the fate of this president as it is the fate of the presidency and our system of government. And that’s – I couldn’t have framed it better.

JIM LEHRER: But, Senator Bayh, how does it feel right out of the box as a new United States Senator, as your first major job to decide whether or not the President of the United States should be removed from office?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, Jim, it’s certainly not the beginning I would have scripted. I imagine I speak for George and the other seven new members as well, but when you take the oath, you pledge to do those things not just that are pleasant and easy but those things that are difficult and sometimes unpleasant. And so I hope we can do this in a dignified manner, with due deliberation, and then get on to address the other important issues that affect the daily lives of Americans like saving Social Security and dealing with the budget, health care, education, those sorts of things. So it’s not an ideal beginning but it’s the one we have, and I hope we can discharge it well.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Voinovich, had you been following this case closely before you were elected to the Senate?

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH: Frankly, no. As you know, I came out of the governor’s office, and I had a lot of other things that were on my mind, and quite frankly, I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to deal with this issue in the Senate, and now that I have to, it’s – I think – maybe – could be the most important thing I deal with during my term in the United States Senate. And I think that it’s a very serious matter, is one that we’ve got to make sure is done with dignity and respect for the presidency, and at the same time I agree with Evan that there is other work of the people that need to get done here, and I came down here to do something about the national debt and saving and protecting Social Security and dealing with Medicare and defining the proper role for the federal government in dealing with problems of education and health care, and a lot of other things that are really important to the people of this country and to the people of the state of Ohio.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, on some of the specifics involved in this trial, Senator Daschle, your leader, has said that the 45 Democratic Senators are fairly united on the issue of witnesses, in other words, do not – there’s no need for witnesses. Can he count on you? Are you one of the 45 who was fairly committed to that idea?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, first, Jim, as you know very well, the concepts of being a Democrat and being unified, that’s almost an oxymoron. I told Tom I didn’t envy him his task at souvenirs if he was trying to herd a bunch of cats, but getting to the heart of your question, I have an open mind on the issue of witnesses, and I think several of the other members in our caucus do as well. What I will look to hear from the House managers is, is there something new, something different that has not already been testified to under oath, that is material to the charges being brought against the president? As Senator Byrd mentioned, there is just a voluminous record of testimony before the grand jury, before the House of Representatives, and if there is something that goes beyond that of a serious nature, of course, we’ll be willing to listen to that. But just to have a repetition of the same testimony already been given under oath for purposes of creating a sensation or a show of some kind, I don’t think that that is what impeachment is all about.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Voinovich, what’s your view on witnesses?

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH: Well, I share the same opinion, as Senator Bayh and I think that the issue is – and I think the compromise is – again, I think it may be the finest hour. If I talked to some Republicans, when we got together there in the old Senate chamber, he came up with protocol and process that we could all be proud of, I thought the compromise was a good one if during the trial there appears to be some reason other than the record that we have before us to have a witness and in that case I would say let’s say – let’s hear from the witnesses. So often, you have differences of opinion. It depends on how it works out. And so I think that we’re going to all watch it, and I think that everyone’s got to reach into their own heart and make a decision if they feel that a witness would help clarify things and reach impartial justice, as we’ve been required under the oath that we have taken, we’ll be supportive of it. If we feel that it’s nothing new and it’s not going to add anything, then I think we’ll say we’ve heard all that we need to hear and we can make a decision.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bayh, you are a Democrat. Senator Byrd said it’s not a political party matter, but you are a Democrat. Senator Voinovich is a Republican. You don’t feel any special pressure on you, Senator Bayh, because the president, who was facing removal, is, in fact, a Democrat.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: You know, Jim, I don’t. This is one of those moments in which you have to put politics aside; you have to put personal familiarity aside, and do what’s right for the country. As I said earlier, I think what’s important is how we will be viewed in 50 and 100 years, and no one will remember what political party we belong to. But they will remember whether we did what was right by the Constitution, and our institution’s a free government. And I think about what my children will say some day or my grandchildren. And so we do belong to political parties, but this is not the time for that, and I feel no pressure in that regard at all.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Voinovich, do you feel any pressure on you as a Republican? After all, these charges are being brought by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. It’s already been suggested that if these charges do not stick and the president is, in fact, not removed, it would be a repudiation of the Republican House. Do you see it that way?

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH: No, I don’t. I think that we’re doing something that’s required by the Constitution. I think that all of us should take off our political labels. We are now jurors and we have a responsibility to judge this not on the basis of frankly of what the public opinion polls are showing or what somebody perceives the final result is going to be on the future of our political party, we should be concerned about the impact that it’s going to have on our country and on precedent and from a very selfish point of view I agree with Evan. I want to look back on this with some pride, that we did it with impartiality, that we did it with dignity, that we were looking for the truth, and let the chips fall where they may.

JIM LEHRER: What do both of you – starting with you, Senator Bayh – make of Senator Byrd’s argument that it might be more nonpartisan if you all deliberate in private, rather than before the public and the TV cameras?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, that’s a tough call, Jim, and I don’t want to come down on both sides of it, but I do think there’s merit on both sides. On the one hand, I tend to be in favor of more openness. This is a profound constitutional matter. I think the American people have a right to know what we think and what we decide. At the same time I feel very strongly that we should avoid the sensationalism that has afflicted too many of our institutions. Too often the courts these days – with the O.J. trial and others with which your viewers are familiar – have become basically entertainment venues. It’s affected some parts of our media. It’s affected some parts of our political establishment. We should not let the sensationalism affect the United States Senate in something as profound as the impeachment – possible removal of the president. So, on the one hand, I think we need to have as much openness as possible. On the other hand, I don’t think we want to have this degenerate into a situation where Senators are playing to the cameras.

JIM LEHRER: Well, there’s going to be a vote on this issue. How do you plan to vote, Senator Bayh?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: On the ultimate question of -

JIM LEHRER: No, no. On the – no, no – I’ll get to that later – some other -

SEN. EVAN BAYH: I’m not sure -

JIM LEHRER: I thought there’s going to be a motion by Senators Harkin and Wellstone.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: They made it just today, Jim. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to vote. I’d favor more openness than less, but at the same time let’s not let it become just an entertainment venue.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re not going to vote for opening it?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: No. I think – as Senator Byrd was suggesting, perhaps we open some parts of it but not all.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Voinovich, your view.

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH: I think that what you have to do is to look at the procedure that’s been laid down and followed for years since the time when this was put into the Constitution, the Johnson trial, and so on, and that the forefathers envisioned that the deliberations by the jury would be in closed session, just as historically, if you go back to England, the Magna Charter, that people get together in a room and deliberate and they do it in a closed session. We do that for people that are being tried for murder and for other kinds of things, and there is that – all of us want to shoot for openness, but I think if one goes back to that last Friday, when we got together and kind of forgot about the fact that we were Republicans and Democrats and realize the immense responsibility that we had, there was something special that took place in that room. And I think Senator Byrd’s words were right on point, that a lot of the things I think will be said; there will be more candor. I think that we’ll be reaching for our higher instincts, and if this is on national television, where perhaps some might be tempted to play to the cameras, instead of concentrating on the serious matter before us.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Senators, thank you both very much, and let me be among the last, I guess, to welcome you to Washington.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Thank you, Jim.