TOPICS > Politics

Political Wrap

January 7, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, put this incredible day in some perspective for us.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s impressions. It was impressions of Lloyd Ogilvie, the Senate chaplain saying – calling upon the Almighty as this sacred chamber turns into a court, and the senators become jurors. I mean, the solemnity, the seriousness of it. It struck me that I grew up on the – correct me here – there’s a point that Michael Beschloss made about how attitudes are formed. I saw Joseph Welsh, the proper Boston lawyer, who was a native of Iowa, route and expose the Wisconsin bully, Joe McCarthy, and really a man who kept two presidencies – that of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower – hostage to his anti-Communist theatrics and really lead to his downfall. So I mean that was a defining moment, and I think we’re on another defining moment, and just one point that Doris made about the silence. I was talking to a very respected United States senator this afternoon who said the biggest ally that the White House has in this is the rule drawn in 1868 by some unknown servant of the Senate who said that senators had to sit mute. He said the idea of senators – and he’s a former congressman, himself, member of the House – sitting mute while members of the House declaim for day after day will lead to an early resolution.

PAUL GIGOT: Except they won’t be shouting at one another like they did in the House; they’ll be making their case.

MARK SHIELDS: And have to listen to House members? I don’t think that’s –

MARGARET WARNER: What were your thoughts today? Put in sort of both — a political perspective.

PAUL GIGOT: I was struck by some contrast. One, the contrast of the sobriety, the solemnity, the seriousness of this day, contrasted with the event on the White House lawn after the impeachment where the House Democrats came over and there was almost a jovial mood, very different. This – that made it sound like it was almost business as usual. Today we learned impeachment is not business as usual; it’s much more serious. And then the members, one by one, walking up there, taking a special oath, not their original oath but a special oath, which says that they must judge fairly whether or not a chief executive has violated his oath, and I think that made an impression on them.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mark, explain to us now where you think things stand. I mean, we just heard the four senators try to explain why they had a deal and then it fell apart and where they are. What’s your take on what happened, why they still don’t have a process that they’ve agreed on?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Senate, you have to understand, is an institution with 100 presidents-in-waiting in it. These are individuals, not totally bathed in humility, self-effacement. So the operating rule frequently in the Senate is if it’s not my plan, it’s a bad plan. And I can see the Senate working its way toward some version of what had been originally voted by Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, and Slade Gorton, a Republican, under the auspices or at least with the encouragement of the Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the Senate Democratic Leader – Minority Leader Tom Daschle. And I think that’s what they’re struggling toward right now. Trent Lott is somebody who does not want this to turn into a spectacle both in the sense of history. And in a strange way he’s serving both the ends of – my judgment – the White House, wanting to bring a structure and a certain predictability to this so that they can organize the defense, but he’s also serving the cause of those who are interested in the conviction of the president because it cannot be done in a partisan way. And unless he can – he can never be convicted that way. If the House experience is foremost in the minds of the Senators and the public and the vote does come in the Senate, then you can be sure that Bill Clinton will not be convicted, and so I think Trent Lott by pushing a process that is separate from and appears to be and is actually more fair probably makes the case against the president more formidable.

MARGARET WARNER: But he hasn’t been able to pull it together yet.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, no, he hasn’t, but there has been something of a change within the two parties in the last two days. A week ago it was the Republicans who were divided. Trent Lott had the proposal and a lot of Republicans objected. Yesterday they had a conference and a very long conference, nearly all day, and they came – they knocked out something of a compromise that just about all of them – including the moderates and most conservatives – could live with.

MARGARET WARNER: And this is the one we heard Jim lay out two or three times, and it’s basically to defer the question of witnesses to down the road.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, no, no, no. The question of witnesses would be open, but if the House or the White House made the argument that a witness was necessary, 51 senators could – could call one, that’s right. So in that sense it’s deferred, yes. I think the division now today was on the Democrats. There was a kind of an impromptu meeting in the well of the Senate today by – this morning with a lot of Republicans and Democrats, and they finally weren’t that far apart. Senator Lott made an offer that said, hey, look, let’s get a hundred people – all of us – very rare event – and meet in the old Senate chamber and talk about it.

MARGARET WARNER: With no TV cameras?

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. Some of the Democrats kind of like that idea – and said, all right, let’s hash it out – but Tom Daschle, the minority leader, objected. He doesn’t like the idea of witnesses. The White House is really opposed to calling witnesses, and even – even on a 51-vote basis, so that broke down for a while and then both sides reconsidered. Lott made another offer, Daschle reconsidered, and now tomorrow they’ll be able to see if they can hash it out.

MARK SHIELDS: That is not what my reporting showed. I mean, my reporting showed it quite different, that quite frankly, a number of leading Republican senators do not want witnesses, among them Sen. Ted Stevens, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful men in the Senate from Alaska; Sen. Fred Thompson had said to the Republican House managers, look, you didn’t have witnesses. Now, what do you want to bring them over here for — and the prospect of a spectacle, and they were counting — some of the Republicans who want witnesses were counting on Sen. Bob Byrd of West Virginia to be their ally, and he is adamantly opposed to bringing witnesses. So I don’t think – I don’t think any of this follows an easy line either politically or ideologically. I mean, Susan Collins, one of the most moderate members of the Republican caucus, is for bringing witnesses.

PAUL GIGOT: Sure, I agree with that ideology absolutely, but I think that the concession that the House managers have made or that Lott has forced them to take is you’re not going to be able necessarily to call all the witnesses you want, but what a lot of the Republican senators want to do is they at least want to have a vote on whether or not to call a Monica Lewinsky or whether to call a Vernon Jordan or to call a Betty Currie.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say that both the Senate Republicans and Democrats – each is being pressed very hard by the House managers on the Republican side and by the White House on the Democratic side?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that has been the case, and I think in each case there’s a sense that the Senate wants to work its own will. I think that the Senate Democrats, while considerate of the White House and its predicament, are making it increasingly more clear that this is a Senate decision, and the Republican managers have been told rather bluntly by several leading Republican Senators that hey, folks, this isn’t your show, and you want to start reaching out into the hither region for some of the witnesses they had on their list, who never even appeared in the House Judiciary proceedings – I’m not about as witnesses – never even were discussed. They’re talking about – you know – bringing people in. They were just told no, frankly.

PAUL GIGOT: But the Lott proposal will allow them to reject it without a majority.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you get the feeling, Paul – and maybe this is an unfair question – but that what’s driving a lot of these Senators – and we were so used to analyzing it just politically but that there’s also a kind of institutional loyalty that they’re feeling – some of the things that Haynes and others were talking about, that – as important as their political calculation in terms of their party is how the Senate’s going to appear today and through history?

PAUL GIGOT: I absolutely – and frankly, whether they’ll be able to stand up and look themselves in the mirror. I mean, it does come down to as simple as that. If you’re looking about it – pure politics, you look at this from the simple poll numbers – and you’re a Republican – you’d say let’s shut down, it’s over. I mean, the party’s approval ratings haven’t been helped by this process. But a lot of them feel they have to. And if you look at it from a Democratic point of view, I might say, wait a minute, this is a Democratic president; we shouldn’t want him to have to endure a trial, but Robert Byrd or some other people say, look, it’s our duty to the Constitution, this is a Senate prerogative, we have to go ahead with it. I think there is that seriousness. It’s not just all surface politics.

MARK SHIELDS: When Jim Lehrer interviewed Sen. Byron Dorgan and asked what your reaction was, your feelings, your emotions as you signed your oath in the oath book today, I think he spoke for all the Senators when he said this was a solemn, somber, serious experience and one that each one took individually and seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, Mark and Paul.