House-Senate competition an old story

January 11, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Compared with the rampant partisanship that marked the Clinton impeachment inquiry and vote in the House, the Senate's bipartisan agreement on general procedure for its trial of the president holds out the hope that it may proceed with greater decorum, if not harmony.

It's too early to say, however, whether the plan to leave open the question of witnesses -- the cause of initial disharmony -- will effectly curb the squabbling.

But working for that end may be the fact that members of the Senate regard themselves as a more dignified and contemplative lot than their House brethren across the Capitol. And they are mindful that the partisanship of the House stage of this dreary episode puts their behavior to a particular test.

`The other body'

Members of the House refer to the Senate as "the other body," but the good senators really think of it as "the upper body" in spite of their co-equal standing under the Constitution. They obviously want to conduct their end of the impeachment saga with a much higher degree of decorum than exhibited by the House, as befits what they consider their superior station.

Newly elected Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who just weeks ago was serving on the House Judiciary Committee that voted rancorously on narrow party lines to recommend President Clinton's impeachment, made a telling comment on his initiation into Senate membership: "It's certainly not what I expected for my first day."

The long record of Congress emphatically documents that although the House likes to consider itself to be on a par with the Senate, hundreds of House members have left there for the Senate. There is no question that representing a whole state rather than a congressional district gives a senator more political clout and prestige.

Mr. Schumer is one of four former House members who successfully made the switch in the November elections. In the history of the republic, only 54 senators have later served in the House, including President John Quincy Adams, and nine of them later served in the Senate again. Only 11 made the switch from Senate to House in this century and only four in the past 50 years, the last being Matthew Neely of West Virginia, and he completed his service back in the Senate in 1958.

In the current situation, the outbreak of partisanship over the witness issue stemmed from irritation among Senate Democrats and some Republicans over the disposition of House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde and other House managers of the Clinton prosecution to try to impose rules on how the Senate would conduct the trial.

The Senate Democrats particularly were unhappy with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's dealings with Mr. Hyde over the witness question. They believed Mr. Lott was yielding to pressures from his party's right wing, which has pushed for calling witnesses, presumably in the hope of coming up with more dirt on Mr. Clinton.

Right-wing influence

Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who has a mind of his own and doesn't hesitate to speak it, told reporters off the floor at one point: "The next thing I know, I'm going to be sitting in a negotiating room and Ralph Reed [former head of the Christian Coalition] is going to be sitting across the table."

More frustration doubtless is in store for all senators as a result of the rules that instruct the senators to remain silent while the House managers of the prosecution make their presentation. If any senator has a question, he must submit it in writing to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, to pose for him.

The spectacle of "the upper body" taking a back seat while members of "the other body" hold the spotlight in the Senate chamber should alone be worth the price of admission.

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

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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