TOPICS > Politics

Counting Heads

December 15, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The impending impeachment vote. In the last two days 18 House Republicans have come out in favor of impeachment. They were among the 30 or so undecided moderate Republicans targeted by the White House as possible “no” votes, and in today’s New York Times Bob Dole proposed an alternative to a Senate trial if the House votes for impeachment. We look at these and other developments now with three Congress watchers: Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute; Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution; and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe.

JIM LEHRER: Tom Oliphant, so where do matters stand tonight, about 48 hours away from the first vote?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, what we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, Jim, is sort of like an avalanche coming down one side of a mountain, and the result, I think, is that the Republican conference in the House is now speaking with virtually one voice. And it is yes on at least one article. And as of tonight, for the first time, the margin for one article of impeachment slightly exceeds the number of genuinely uncommitted Republicans that’s left.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the say way, Norm?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Pretty much. The news has been not quite uniformly banned for the president, although what passes for good news for him these days is not anything he would have considered good a while back. The only Republican who said something other than I’m for impeachment today was Mike Castle of Delaware, who’d been a governor when Bill Clinton was a governor, a moderate who wrote a letter to the leaders calling for an extremely tough censure penalty with fine. But no other Republicans joined him on that letter. That, along with Bob Dole’s proposal, which was an extremely tough proposal, were the only pieces of news other than Republicans announcing they were for impeachment, including at least one, Jack Quinn of New York, who previously had said he was against. So if there’s a sense of momentum here, it is momentum that has moved very much against the president today.


THOMAS MANN: Well, none of us should have much confidence in our forecast, given the extraordinary turn of events over the last week. I think it’s clear that at this point it seems very likely that one or more articles of impeachment will pass the House of Representatives on Thursday. I can’t now see any event that could intervene – any action by the president that would alter that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. The president’s coming back tonight. He arrives back in Washington around midnight or shortly before midnight. He’s got all day tomorrow. There is talk that he might do something major, something dramatic. Have you heard that talk, and what do you make of it?

THOMAS MANN: There’s lots of talk about it. He has a meeting with Chris Shays scheduled, and he should certainly –

JIM LEHRER: Tell us about Chris Shays.

THOMAS MANN: Chris Shays was actually a very vocal opponent of impeachment who says –

JIM LEHRER: He’s a Republican – among the Republicans –

THOMAS MANN: A Republican from Constitution who’s now reconsidering the whole matter.

JIM LEHRER: He was on our program last week stating why –

THOMAS MANN: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: — he was opposed to impeachment.

THOMAS MANN: He’s very unhappy with the president’s statement last Friday, and he’s asked to meet with the president. The president should hear out Chris Shays and any other Republicans or Democrats who want to hear from him. But the idea of a public statement of contrition once again seems rather beside the point.


TOM OLIPHANT: Over and over this afternoon, Jim, I think we heard from some of these Republicans that there really isn’t anything left for the president to say to them. I don’t think this is so much the end of a negotiation as it is the end of an attempt to do a little dance here. I mean, I can cover the current margin for impeachment with the names of the Republicans who would have been willing to vote against it if the president would admit to the crime that he denies.

JIM LEHRER: If he had said I committed perjury –

TOM OLIPHANT: Or at least used the “l” word – lie –


TOM OLIPHANT: Which was clear he would not do. And I think that was the precipitating event for many of these people. But also I can cover the margin that currently exists with the names of Republicans who would have been for a censure proposal if their leadership would let them vote on it. But absent that opportunity, they will vote for at least one. And it’s important to underline at least one because –


TOM OLIPHANT: Because how this plays out on the House floor will have a tremendous amount to do with the way it’s perceived by the public. If the perjury before the grand jury count survives and the other three fail, that’s one case. If the obstruction of justice charge in Article III succeeds, that could set the stage for a very lengthy trial. If it fails, it could narrow the case to perjury, which might make it easier to settle with a censure resolution. But if it is three or four articles, the opportunity for compromise becomes very difficult.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It’s quite striking that you had some Republicans basically saying if you admit perjury, we won’t impeach you; if you don’t admit perjury, we will impeach you. And you wonder about the dynamic. And, of course, part of what’s going on here is that if the president had admitted perjury, some of his supporters would have melted away as well. So he may have been in that sense in a knowing situation. I suspect what he will try now is to meet not just with Chris Shays but some of these other moderates and try and seize upon Mike Castle’s letter and see if he can find 10 Republicans who will accept, in effect, a deal that he will agree with this motion for tough censure with a $2 million penalty and other things and an admittance of wrongdoing. And if he can –

JIM LEHRER: A plea bargain.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: A plea bargain, but what he’d like to do is to get their agreement that that would be enough and then go back to Bob Livingston, the incoming speaker, and say, all right, now let’s be reasonable. But the chances of that happening at this point are slim, indeed.

JIM LEHRER: Tom Mann, the wires had several stories today, and our reporters have verified this. It was almost impossible to get through to Capitol Hill today on the telephone because people were calling in from all over the country registering their desire, impeaching, don’t impeach him, et cetera. The e-mail and the Internet, all of this, was also – was overloaded on the same thing also directed to members of Congress. Is that likely to have any impact?

THOMAS MANN: It really isn’t. I think the message is reinforce preexisting positions and neutralize one another in the case of members. Politicians are making very complex calculations that – for which they can take a reading from e-mails or telephone calls. It’s will I have a conservative primary challenge in my next election, what will happen in the general election now that it’s going to be resolved – two years possibly – in advance of the next election? How can I live with my party leaders if I stray on a critical procedural vote? These are all complex issues for which signals from the public by e-mail are not dispositive.

TOM OLIPHANT: It’s a very important point, and the best example of it this afternoon was when I tried to listen to Billy Tauzin, who was a Democrat turned Republican in Louisiana, probably going to vote for impeachment but hasn’t announced it yet, and –

JIM LEHRER: He’s still on the list of –

TOM OLIPHANT: But probably tilting.


TOM OLIPHANT: But he – listening to him talk you could hear him virtually say I know this is going to get settled in the Senate; there will be some kind of deal; he knows from deals. But there just wasn’t time. He couldn’t do the dance now.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s talk about the Dole proposal, Norm. First of all, tell us in summary form what that’s all about, what did Bob Dole suggest?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Bob Dole, on his own, without prompting from anybody, he said, without talking to anybody –

JIM LEHRER: Do we know that for a fact, without prompting from anybody?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: That’s what he said, yes.


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And I think he’s to be trusted in this area very much. So a prominent piece in the New York Times today, in effect, said –

JIM LEHRER: On the op-ed page.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: On the op-ed page.


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: First indicating that he had lots of reasons to be unhappy with Bill Clinton, believing in part the election might have been stolen from him, but putting that aside –

JIM LEHRER: Campaign finance reasons.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Putting that aside, he said, here’s the right thing for the country. And, in effect, what Dole is proposing is a tougher equivalent of what Congress has set up for its own members to treat them in a very tough fashion if they stray in ethical grounds. Congress, when it deals with its own members, has a continuum of things it can do. It can expel members, a very tough thing. Right behind that is a censure. I’ve seen it operate with a member of Congress. You are brought in front of the well of the House or Senate, where they read to you the charges. It’s absolutely humiliating. Dole is suggesting that they come up with an equivalent for the president. In effect, it’s a joint resolution that goes through both House of Congress. This would happen after the House acts on impeachment.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And this assumes – he assumes that the House is going to vote at least one article of impeachment.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: In fact, he says it happens whether they vote an article of impeachment or don’t vote an article of impeachment.


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But, in effect, you incorporate the impeachment articles and the accusations into a joint resolution; there’s an agreement on the part of all parties that they will expedite this to move it through so it can be resolved by January 2nd. It would have to be signed by the president but not just signed by the president. He says the resolution is written by Republican leaders; Democrats go along; and then the Republican leaders set the date and time and place for this to be signed. Present will be the cabinet, congressional leaders, the Supreme Court, and the media, including television. So the world will see Bill Clinton sign a resolution, which admits extremely tough things and which may with his concurrence have additional penalties, financial or otherwise, something very humiliating but resolved quickly and short of actually voting on impeachment in the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Any impact today?

TOM OLIPHANT: Not particularly. And of course, there’s a problem down the line that is monumental in terms of the Constitution, and that is whether a president should admit to charges he not only denies but which have never been contested in an adversarial setting, and the precedent that could set for our country for years to come might be too much of a danger.

JIM LEHRER: Big price for –


JIM LEHRER: — you mean –

THOMAS MANN: The idea of trying to negotiate a joint resolution after a vote of impeachment to avoid a Senate trial is very much in play, but Senator Dole’s particular formulation is so tough, requiring the president to basically agree to the four articles of impeachment and to prior restraint on his speech and any other Democratic leader’s speech critical of this statement means that form wouldn’t work, but Sen. Dole’s played a constructive role in advancing the idea.

JIM LEHRER: You suggested earlier, Norm, that the Dole proposal in some ways also may have – may have encouraged some House Republicans to go ahead and vote for impeachment because – well, they’ll work it out in the Senate some way – maybe the Dole way or another way or something.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: One of the things that Republican leaders in the House have been suggesting openly and otherwise to their own members is this is not the end of the world, because it will be resolved in a different fashion. And they’re trying to, in a sense, soften the blow, lower the stakes of a vote for impeachment by their own members.

JIM LEHRER: Norm, two Toms, thank you both