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Senate Votes to Continue Trial

January 27, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now to four senators: Republicans Robert Bennett of Utah and Sam Brownback of Kansas; and Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Harry Reid of Nevada. Senator Bennett, first, how do you see the importance of these two votes today?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, in terms of the final outcome of the trial, I don’t think they’re important at all. I think they were fairly foreordained all along. The Democrats were going to make the motion to dismiss, the Republicans always knew that. Those of us who decided we weren’t ready to dismiss and that we wanted to go to final decision on the articles themselves, even Republicans who may not vote for the final articles, said we shouldn’t dismiss at this point. And so that was kind of foreordained and the other one, again a procedural motion, I think everybody understood how it was going to come out. Everyone has done what he needs to do and now we go forward.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Reid, do you agree with Senator Bennett that these things didn’t mean that much in the final analysis?

SEN. HARRY REID: I couldn’t disagree more with my friend from Utah. We started out having received from the House of Representatives a very partisan charge to remove the president of the United States from office. We said, okay, we’ll try to be bipartisan, so we worked out an agreement three weeks ago tomorrow to have a procedure so that we could move through this quickly, we could do it fairly and openly. And because of our colleagues, mostly from the House, pushing this — the House Republican managers — we failed each of the three things I think are important. First of all, my friend Tom Harkin here offered a motion to have these deliberations public: they haven’t been public. We also tried to have a trial that would be quick. That was defeated today. We also tried to have one that was fair. That was defeated today. Everything we’ve tried to do has been stopped. I think that the American public deserves an end to this, an end to it as quickly as possible. We’ll sanction the president, that would be fine with, I think, almost every Democrat, but let’s move forward with this and get rid of it so we can do something about education. We have 3,000 children dropping out of school everyday. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that? Social Security needs help, Medicare, campaign finance reform, healthcare reform and we’re wasting our time on the Senate floor by having this thing go on and on and on. It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that they don’t have the votes to convict the president. Let’s move on to something else.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback, how about that? You don’t have the votes to convict the president. Why prolong it?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: We’ve had 15 impeachment trials in the history of the republic. Not a single one was dismissed. In the history of the entire nation we’ve never dismissed one. I think it’s very important, very important for this nation that in this trial we get to a finality of it and that finality is a final vote on conviction or acquittal with all of the evidence in, the limited number of potential witnesses, those weren’t even voted on today, we just voted to depose witnesses, and this doesn’t have to go on for a long period of time. As a matter of fact, Senator Harkin and I are working on a plan that would call for a final vote on conviction or acquittal with also the presentation of witnesses by video in this final vote, and it could be a week from Friday. We can do that and move on to the agenda because until we get through this, we can’t really get to reconciliation of the nation and move on to these other issues. We have got to get through this. And it has to be fair, we’ve tried to be bipartisan and I’m hopeful we can finish this process up as well in a bipartisan fashion and get to finality.

JIM LEHRER: On the question of bipartisanship, Senator Brownback, how would you respond to those who would say that the facts — the same set of facts, all 100 of you have heard the same presentations and yet the only thing that distinguishes whether you vote one way or another on everything, just about up until now, has been whether you are a Republican or a Democrat?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Well, I would disagree with that for Russ Feingold.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. One exception – with one exception.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: — for his viewpoint on it.

SEN. HARRY REID: One out of 100.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: — and on the process. I would say on the process, we were 100-0 that this was important it be a fair process and we’ve been able to do that so far. And I would hope that tomorrow when we vote on finishing up the process, that could be another bipartisan effort at that point in time, like Senator Harkin and I are working on a bipartisan package.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Harkin, do you see this as still a bipartisan effort or is it partisan?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, I think the case started out to be very partisan in the House. I still remember when Ken Starr finished his presentation to the House Judiciary Committee, all of the House Republicans on that House Judiciary Committee gave him a standing ovation. Think about the kind of message that sent. That never happened in Watergate or anything else, any other impeachment kind of hearing we’ve ever had. It was just highly partisan in the House. For example, if the House leadership last fall had permitted a vote on a censure motion, we wouldn’t be here today. We wouldn’t have this case before us. But the Republican leadership in the House drove it. They insisted that they file these articles of impeachment. Now, having said all that, Sam is right, we’ve been working together. I think these votes were, I think as Senator Bennett said, kind of preordained. We knew how these were going to come out. I’m just hopeful now that we can have bipartisanship. And here’s how I measure that: will the Republicans ensure that we have not only a fairly speedy end to this trial but one that ensures basic fairness to the president of the United States to ensure that he can exercise his legal rights? That really is going to decide whether or not it’s bipartisan.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bennett, how would you answer that question?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I would agree absolutely, but the Senate is going to have to be the body that decides what protects the president’s legal rights, not the president’s lawyers. We did that with the House. We’ve heard complaints out of the House that the Senate, in its role as judge — understand, we are judges as well as jurors here — we set the terms of the trial and from our decisions, there is no appeal. Under the Constitution this is our responsibility. We set terms that the House managers didn’t like but that we felt were appropriate to keep the trial moving and to keep it quick. And if we set the same kinds of terms for the president’s lawyers, I don’t want to hear people coming and saying, “Oh, you’re not being fair to the president because you didn’t let him or his lawyers get everything they wanted.” That’s not what we’re supposed to do. We do — I think we will be fair; I think we can do it on a bipartisan basis; but we want this to come to a conclusion. The president says he wants it over quickly and therefore when they start talking “scorched earth” policy and dragging this out for months and months in the name of fairness of the president, I think they’d better expect the Senate to say no.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go through this beginning now with you, Senator Reid. What are the bones of contention? In other words, forget what’s happened up till this point and forget today’s votes, even. From this point on, what measurement will you and other Democrats use and what should other people use to determine whether or not this process continues be fair?

SEN. HARRY REID: First of all, we need to have an end game. We have to know when -

JIM LEHRER: A date, a specific date?

SEN. HARRY REID: A specific date when this is going to end. I think we would all be happy with that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask everybody. Do you agree where that Senator Brownback?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I certainly agree to that. We need to get a date certain that we vote on it and that’s what Senator Harkin and others, along with myself, we’ve been working on to get that done. We can do that.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think it can be done, Senator Bennett?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And, Senator Harkin, do you agree?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: As Senator Brownback said, we have been working closely together with other Republicans and Democrats, and we’ve all agreed we can set an end date. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. And then back to you, Senator Reid. Now, if you set that date, then what has to happen? In other words, you have to then work out what happens between now and that date, right?

SEN. HARRY REID: That’s right. And I think the two leaders are working on that now as we speak. We’re going to have a conference in the morning and so are the Republicans. The point is, Jim, is that we need to move this along. We need to move it along to a finality.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I agree.

SEN. HARRY REID: And the quicker we do that, the better off we are. I think it’s a total waste of time to be going into this witness situation. Remember, I repeat, we know there aren’t 67 votes for conviction, that’s a fact. And I don’t know why we have to prolong this. It’s taking time away from what we’re doing. This doesn’t mean the president shouldn’t be reprimanded, rebuked, censured. We can do all those kinds of things that need to be done. But we’ve got to get the Senate back to the business that the American people really feel should be — we should be engaged in.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback, let me ask you. How do you get around this issue – Senator Reid said and many Democrats have said, hey, we don’t want witnesses. Do you think it’s possible to work out something — let’s say the three witnesses are deposed, –

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: — it’s on videotape and that is what you senators look at rather than have them live?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Yes. And that’s what a number of us on a bipartisan fashion are working on. Then you would have a three-day time period, here, basically to depose three witnesses. It would be on video and then selected portions would be taken out as the White House wants to use on video in front of the Senate, and as the House managers want to use. So you can really truncate your time and trial.

JIM LEHRER: And that would be it?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: And that would be the witnesses that are called.

SEN. HARRY REID: We may even expedite this even more. What we could do, those senators are having questions about the facts and want to see these three witnesses in person. They could go look at the information themselves.

JIM LEHRER: The whole thing?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: At the whole videotape. They could do that.

SEN. HARRY REID: And wouldn’t need a thing on the Senate floor.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bennett, would you buy that?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, let me go back to the question of the great anger that’s been expressed that we’re even calling witnesses at all -

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: — and explain to you why I think we have done it. There are some senators– and I will not identify them – but there are some senators who have said in our closed sessions while we’ve been in deliberation — and, frankly, I think we have been better off because they’ve been closed because they’ve been much more frank than they would have been if your television cameras had been there — they said, “We haven’t made up our minds.” And frankly, for a senator who is going to cast a vote that will go down in history as maybe the most significant he or she will ever cast who says, “I want a little more information” — I don’t care in terms of the outcome whether it’s preordained that the president is going to be acquitted or convicted, I care about my vote and how carefully it is arrived at and how carefully it is cast. And I want some witnesses. It’s to protect those senators that we said we ought to proceed.

JIM LEHRER: But witnesses live in the well of the Senate or witnesses on videotape?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I think we take it one step at a time. We take the video, I would be satisfied with the video. I wouldn’t feel the need for live witnesses. And let’s see what’s there and let’s see how these senators react. And, no, I’m not giving any one senator veto power over the deal but I think we have to recognize that these are very important historic votes that are going to be cast and for the sake of a day or two, we ought to allow senators to get what they need.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Harkin, do I smell a deal here?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, I’m very encouraged by what I’ve just heard. Of course, I knew how Sam felt because he and I have been working together, but hearing what Senator Bennett just said, I think there’s some hope here that we really can reach a bipartisan agreement on this.

JIM LEHRER: And be done by the end of next week?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, I don’t know if that’s possible; it’s going to depend, really, upon the witnesses that are called and what comes out of that.

SEN. HARRY REID: It’s also going to depend on the White House.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: And how much time the White House feels they need to depose their witnesses.

JIM LEHRER: Do you -

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Now, I will say one other thing.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: We have learned, for example, Sam and I were working on this, that for example Mr. Jordan is not even in the country and will not be back until late Saturday. So he can’t be deposed until next week anyway. So there’s some problems there, just in getting the logistics.

SEN. HARRY REID: And I think also tomorrow I think you may see some interesting things happen with those senators who were concerned that maybe we should be doing something with the sanctions and I think you’re going to have a number of senators speaking out publicly.

JIM LEHRER: You mean censure – you mean post- a vote on acquittal or conviction, you mean?

SEN. HARRY REID: That’s right.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Could I raise something on this point because it’s something that I’ve got a lot of concern about.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: This is a process that’s not been followed for 130 years – or has not been used. And so we are really concerned about the history here. The issue on sanctions is that can be considered — and by most lawyers, I guess, is considered a bill of attainders. You have to have agreement by the White House to agree to a set of sanctions.

SEN. HARRY REID: No, No, Sam. No, no.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Well, if it is -

SEN. HARRY REID: Not any sanctions -

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: It is. On sanctions if you’re going to penalize the president on this. And so -

SEN. HARRY REID: Not any sanctions I’ve been dealing with. Any sanctions I’ve been dealing with does not need the president’s permission. And there are -

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: If you’re going to fine the president.

JIM LEHRER: But that would come — that would be a separate process, would it not, from –

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: After the final vote on the articles of impeachment?

SEN. HARRY REID: It could be part of the negotiations and I agree with Senator Harkin, I think the conversation here tonight has been very good and I think maybe, Jim, we should bring you in tomorrow to our conferences.

JIM LEHRER: No thank you. No thank you, I don’t have the proper sleeves – I mean, the things on my sleeve. But let me ask you, Senator Bennett, what is it that you fear the most from the White House? In other words, what is it that you want in an agreement tomorrow that would make you feel more comfortable about agreeing to a final date, etc.?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I think the spokesmen for the White House should back off from the scorched-earth threats that we’ve had. Mr. Kendall and the other lawyers who’ve said, “You allow a single witness to step in front of a single court stenographer and we will make sure in order to protect our rights this will go on for months and months and months.”

SEN. HARRY REID: I don’t think he said that.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: No. We’ve got to get them to get -

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Senator Harkin, you’re talking to Senator Brownback and others in your own leadership as well. Is the White House on board in an early disposition of this along the lines that you and Senator Brownback are talking about?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Yes, I think the White House would like to have something worked out like it. I don’t want to correct my friend Senator Bennett too much here but I don’t remember Mr. Kendall saying that, and that was in the context when the House managers were saying they needed like, what, 12 or 15– they wanted to have 12 or 15 -

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I’ll send you a transcript, Tom.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, they wanted 12 or 15, you don’t deny that, do you, Bob?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I don’t deny that.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Okay.

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: But he said it after it was narrowed down. He — one witness and by George you’ve opened the Pandora’s box – and here we go.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: You could open the Pandora’s box. We keep talking about the three witnesses that they want to depose but you know, the House managers snuck in something else. They want to take a sworn affidavit of T. Wesley Holmes, a lawyer for Paula Jones and some other documents that he has. Now, this case was dismissed by the House. It’s not before us. And yet the House managers slipped that in there in a way that this guy can’t even be cross-examined. That’s an underhanded trick.

JIM LEHRER: Let me – before we go -

SEN. HARRY REID: Jim, I think that’s the whole point of calling for more witnesses. We think it should stop. We don’t think it should be the House calling these witnesses and then the White House calls a few more and then the House wants a few more. Let’s end this.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback, do you think the problem that Senator Harkin just laid out can be resolved in a deal?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I think it can be resolved. People here have enormous goodwill to try to get this done in a fair, speedy, bipartisan process. Really, I don’t know that we’re all that far apart and for the good of the nation, truly, for the good of the nation, we’ve got to get to a final verdict on this and it needs to be fair, bipartisan, and speedy so that we can start reconciling as a country.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you each – before we go -

SEN. HARRY REID: We can’t inch into the partisanship that took place in the House. I’m happy to hear what each of my colleagues are saying.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that’s happening, Senator Reid?

SEN. HARRY REID: Well, I was disappointed in the vote today. I think it should have had -

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let me ask -

SEN. HARRY REID: But the answer is yes, I feel confident we can move on and wind this thing up.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you — let me ask each one of you one question, I’m not going to ask you the follow-up. Just, as we sit here tonight, beginning with you Senator Reid, have you made up your mind on how you’re going to vote on the articles of impeachment?

SEN. HARRY REID: Yes, I have. I’m going to vote acquittal.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Harkin?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Yes. After listening to all of the evidence and reviewing it very carefully, I’ve come to the conclusion this is a counterfeit case. Shouldn’t even have been here in the first place.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: No, I want to hear the final — rest of the evidence we get before I can make an ultimate determination on impartial justice, which is the oath I took.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Bennett?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I’m pretty sure how I’m going to vote. It would take a real dynamite statement to change me, but I’m willing to allow that possibility to still be there and right up to the final time.

JIM LEHRER: Are either of you, Senator Brownback, Senator Bennett, influenced by the fact that you’re Republicans and this has been a Republican effort from the House?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I’m doing my very best not to be influenced by that.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Brownback?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: I took an oath, I said I would do impartial justice. I’m not free to do otherwise.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Senator Harkin, Senator Reid, are you influenced by the fact that it’s a Democratic president?

SEN. HARRY REID: I think the influence was wiped out very early on. I’ve spoken to the president personally about how his conduct I think is objectionable, it’s — he can’t defend it in any way — but the facts do not allow this to be an impeachable case within the confines of the Constitution.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Harkin?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, I would agree with that. You know, we took the oath to do as impartial justice as possible; we looked at both sides.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: And, quite frankly, my bottom line — this is the stuff of political rallies and stump speeches but it’s not the stuff of impeachment.

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

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Thank you.