Clinton to fare better in Senate

December 24, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- With the political fate of President Clinton now shifting to the Senate for trial, some significant changes will occur in the deliberations, mostly in his favor.

Most importantly, two-thirds (67 senators) is required for conviction. With 45 Democrats in the Senate, the prospect, at the outset at least, must be rated slim to none. If the 55 Republicans voted as a bloc, 12 Democrats would have to break with their party's president to remove him from office.

The near-solidarity shown against impeachment by House Democrats for a president whose personal actions they readily condemned demonstrated how GOP partisanship had stiffened Democratic resolve.

There is no reason to believe that resolve will not carry over to the Senate Democrats, especially as the House votes for two articles of impeachment have been characterized as a legislative coup d'etat.

Political mistake

The Republican demands that Mr. Clinton resign in light of the House votes against him were a political mistake in that they lent credence to that characterization. They triggered an immediate rallying around the president, as seen in last Saturday's post-impeachment pep rally in the Rose Garden.

Another advantage for Mr. Clinton is the fact that the Senate will sit as a jury, not a debating society as the House was in the impeachment hearings. That means that no senators will be permitted to speak, thus eliminating the dreary marathon of repetitive and opinionated haranguing that preceded the House vote of the two articles.

If a senator acting as a juror wants to pose a question to either the lawyers defending the president or the prosecutors -- the team of "managers" appointed by the House Republicans from among its Judiciary Committee members -- he must submit it in writing to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, presiding as judge.

That procedure alone can have a moderating effect on the deliberations, eliminating the sort of showboating for the television cameras that occurred on the House side, particularly in the Judiciary impeachment hearings.

The fact that all of the House managers appointed are Republicans will reinforce the Democrats' complaint that the impeachment votes were excessively partisan. None of the handful of Democrats who voted for one or both of the articles, alleging perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice, was included.

The Senate rules on an impeachment trial also offer hope for Mr. Clinton to slip the noose. At any time, a majority vote may end the trial, meaning if the Senate Democrats march in lock step, they will need only six Republicans to join then in calling a halt to the proceedings.

The composition of the Senate suggests there may be a number of senators who might want to save the body, and the country, from the ordeal.

The potential of a vote to end the trial would be a strong incentive driving a compromise on a sharply worded censure of the president. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch has indicated that the prospect that conviction could not be achieved could persuade him to join negotiations on censure.

Much may depend on the posture taken by the White House and the president's lawyers. Mr. Clinton's stonewalling and contemptuous answers to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's 81 questions during his committee's inquiry so angered the Republicans that they used the response as a basis for one of the articles of impeachment (overwhelmingly rejected by the House).

White House lawyers

Mr. Clinton's attorneys, who served the president so poorly with their nitpicking over words and meanings in the run-up to the trial, could stiffen Republican backs in the Senate as they did in the House if they continue that tactic. If, however, they concentrate on the narrow question of whether the president's actions rose to the level of impeachable offenses, their chances of getting Mr. Clinton off the hook with censure are likely to be increased.

One thing the impeachment phase did was drive home to the public the seriousness of the whole matter. Furthermore, the argument used in the House that a vote to impeach was not a vote to remove Mr. Clinton from office will no longer apply in the Senate. The senators will be looking the stark reality of expulsion in the eye, and it will be very hard, sooner or later, not to blink.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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