Senate likely to debate trial in secret

Proposal to deliberate in public received coolly

January 13, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The world's greatest deliberative body, as the Senate likes to call itself, isn't likely to deliberate in public on whether to convict President Clinton -- or on any other issue in his Senate impeachment trial.

A Democratic plan to scrap the 19th-century rule that requires the senators to deliberate on impeachment in private, as regular trial jurors do, got a cool reception yesterday at a meeting of Republican senators.

"I think the sense was that you get a franker exchange when senators know they aren't going to see everything they say in the press," said Republican Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island.

Citing the example of the private bipartisan caucus Friday that led to a compromise agreement on a blueprint for the trial, Chafee said, "When we had no press, no cameras, no staff, the honest flow of ideas was good."

The Senate is still working out many details of the impeachment trial, which will resume tomorrow with the opening of a three-day presentation by House prosecutors. The senators may ultimately decide to release transcripts of their private debates.

But judging from comments by the Republicans, there seems little chance that supporters of public deliberations would be able to garner the two-thirds majority they need to alter the 1868 rule. The Senate has 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.

"As a general matter, we're jurors, and jurors generally deliberate in the jury room," said Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, both Democrats, urged their colleagues this week to update a rule they say is a vestige of Senate secrecy that makes no sense in a world where almost everything else the Senate does is televised.

"The American people may be excluded from participating in impeachment deliberations that could result in overturning the last election," Harkin said. "A secret debate is wrong. It's dangerous, and it's not representative of the open traditions of American democracy."

Mindful that they are badly outnumbered, the two Democrats urged Americans "to rise up" and write letters, send e-mails and make phone calls to protest secret deliberations. There is still time for a public groundswell to have an effect because no major votes in the trial are due until after the House prosecutors and Clinton's lawyers make their presentations over the next 10 days or so.

"We're still discussing it," Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, said of the proposal to hold public deliberations. "I haven't reached a conclusion on that."

House prosecutors are preparing to deliver tomorrow what they hope will be a strong opening day for their presentation: a narrative tale of Clinton's transgressions that they are trying to make compelling enough to stand on its own without witnesses, if need be.

Senators postponed a decision on whether to allow witnesses until after both sides have made their presentations. As a result, the House prosecutors hope to detail what witnesses would testify to, in case no witnesses do so.

"This is a make-or-break day," said Steven Susans, a spokesman for Rep. Ed Bryant. The Tennessee Republican is one of three former federal prosecutors who will present the case tomorrow. "If we don't get to call witnesses, this is where the case will be won or lost."

Bryant will summarize the story chronologically, beginning with Inauguration Day in 1993, when Clinton took his first oath of office as president -- an oath the House prosecutors say he violated -- and continuing through the impeachment proceedings.

Reps. James E. Rogan of California and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas will follow with details of the charges that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice as he tried to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern.

On Friday and Saturday, other prosecutors will address the laws involved and constitutional arguments to support their contention that Clinton's transgressions warrant his removal from office.

"Our job is to present to the Senate the full breadth and depth of the evidence that has been accumulated and to consider all of this when they decide whether to convict the president of the U.S.," said Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, another prosecutor.

White House attorneys will present their case over three days next week, beginning Tuesday. Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, laid the groundwork yesterday by saying of the House case, "It reads like a cheap mystery."

"It is at times a hallmark of what's a weak factual and constitutional case that the allegations continue to shift and that the rhetoric continues to be overblown," Lockhart told reporters.

"I mean, I think there is overblown rhetoric in there about sinister plots, and I think that it detracts from the argument they are trying to make," he added.

Sun national staff writer Paul West contributed to this article.

At the trial today

The Senate "court of impeachment" is not in session. A scheduled session to debate and vote on motions by the House prosecutors and the president's lawyers was canceled; no such motions were made.

10 a.m.: The White House files a brief to make its legal points against impeachment.

Noon: House prosecutors reply to the initial White House challenge to the articles of impeachment, made Monday, and file the full record of evidence against the president.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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