`This is the moment of truth'

Senators retreat behind closed doors to deliberate verdict

Acquittal still expected

February 10, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With President Clinton's acquittal virtually assured, the Senate rebuffed a motion yesterday for public deliberations, closed its doors and began weighing an impeachment verdict that is expected to be reached by tomorrow.

The senators are thought to be far short of the 67 votes needed to convict Clinton of either perjury or obstruction of justice and remove a president for the first time in U.S. history.

Away from public view, the mood inside the chamber yesterday turned somber, several senators said, as members who had been sitting silently for nearly a month listening to lawyers' arguments finally got a chance to exchange views on whether the House Republican prosecutors' case justifies Clinton's removal.

"Everybody's taking it all pretty seriously," Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, said during a break in deliberations. "This is the moment of truth."

Eighteen senators took to the floor in the first four hours of deliberations, with many of them using the full 15 minutes granted to each senator.

Most of them explained how they planned to vote but did not engage other senators in a full-fledged debate.

The first senator to speak, Slade Gorton, a Washington state Republican, announced that he would vote to convict Clinton on the obstruction of justice charge because "it is clear that he obstructed justice."

Gorton said he would vote to acquit Clinton of perjury.

"I cannot will to my children and grandchildren the proposition that a president stands above the law and can systematically obstruct justice simply because both his polls and the Dow Jones index are high," Gorton said in a statement that he said repeated his remarks during the deliberations.

Behind the scenes, many Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans are trying to build support for a formal Senate censure of Clinton that would be voted on after a verdict is reached.

But with some fervent Republicans vowing to block any attempt to have the Senate vote on the proposal, prospects for a censure resolution are dim.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is determined to end the trial with a vote on the two articles of impeachment by tomorrow, and some senators said they might not use their allotted speaking time.

"I wish they would all have yielded back their time," quipped Rep. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, reflecting the Senate's eagerness to get the impeachment trial behind them.

The Senate was almost giddy with relief as it began yesterday's session, brushing aside last-ditch motions that would have delayed the proceedings.

More than on any previous day, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist bantered with the senators as they moved swiftly to deny a request by the prosecutors for additional witnesses and to block an effort that would have opened the deliberations to public view.

"The parliamentarian tells me this is all out of order," the chief justice observed with a smile at one point, when a barrage of questions began to sound suspiciously like a debate. His remark sent the Senate into rollicking laughter.

No one claims to expect that the secret deliberations -- only the second time in history that the Senate has weighed removing a president from office -- will alter the likely acquittal of Clinton on charges stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

A two-thirds majority is required to convict and remove the president. At this point, it is not even certain that a simple majority of 51 senators will vote to convict Clinton.

But in this final debate, the senators will be playing to history in a way that their predecessors in the trial of President Andrew Johnson 131 years ago could not do because their deliberations were not only private but also unrecorded.

In the Clinton trial, a transcript is being made of the deliberations so that each senator can decide whether to make public his or her own remarks after the trial.

As a result, their statements are likely to be similar to what they would have been if offered in public, full of high-flown rhetoric and laced with partisan politics.

At the start of yesterday's session, a solid bloc of mostly conservative Republican senators defeated a move to open the deliberations to public view.

The 59-41 vote in favor of opening the proceedings fell short of the two-thirds majority required to change the 19th-century Senate rules. (Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, voted for public deliberations.)

Explaining his opposition to open deliberations, Lott said he was hoping for a free-flowing exchange of views during deliberations that might have an effect on any still-wavering senators -- the way a regular trial jury operates.

But other Republicans said privately that they did not want to open the debate and thereby provide a forum for Democrats to attack the House prosecutors for conducting what Clinton's defenders call a partisan witch hunt.

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