With President Clinton’s impeachment trial heading down the homestretch, a large bipartisan group of senators is pressing to allow public viewing of the climactic Senate deliberations on whether to remove Clinton from office.
The drive to open that phase of the proceeding looms as perhaps the trial’s final controversy before the roll-call votes on the two articles of impeachment, set for an open session Thursday or Friday.
The impeachment proceeding resumes today, with attention likely to be riveted on videotaped excerpts of testimony by Monica S. Lewinsky taken behind closed doors Monday.
House Republican prosecutors plan to show the excerpts while summing up evidence that, they maintain, proves Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice in seeking to conceal his affair with the former White House intern.
White House lawyers also may rely on Lewinsky excerpts to bolster their arguments that the president is not guilty of the charges.
The videotaped testimony of the trial’s two other witnesses--Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal--also may be shown.
Each legal team will get as much as three hours to make its presentation. On Monday, the two sides will have the same amount of time for closing arguments.
Meanwhile Friday, Senate Democrats, led by Dianne Feinstein of California, escalated their search for bipartisan support to censure the president, presumably after his acquittal.
But settling on language to accommodate differences of opinion on how harsh and how specific the resolution should be has proved difficult. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Some Push to Lift Cloak of Secrecy
While work continued in private on the censure effort, senators who want to remove the cloak of secrecy from their final deliberations went public with their effort.
“The American people have the right to have a full understanding of how we reached our decisions on this very momentous matter,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said at one of Friday’s news conferences on the issue. “It should be debated in the light of day so that the American people and future generations fully understand the reasons for our votes.”
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) said: “The final debate on the question of whether or not the president of the United States of America should be removed from office--this can’t be done behind closed doors.”
If successful, the drive to open the deliberations would set a precedent for impeachment proceedings. And it would prevail where other attempts to devise procedural shortcuts during the current trial have failed.
A motion to open the discussions, likely to be offered Tuesday, would require a two-thirds majority, or at least 67 of the Senate’s 100 members.
“Over 60" senators now back the move, according to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), another open-debate proponent.
Twice before during the trial, Wellstone and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) sought to open debates on procedural motions: one on dismissing the case last week, the other to take depositions from witnesses. The motions failed.
But they and their allies drew encouragement this week when Senate traditionalists such as Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)--both of whom had voted to keep the two earlier debates closed--said that they favor open deliberations on the impeachment charges.
“I think the momentum is moving our way, and I think we have a very good chance to pass this motion,” Hutchison said.
Most, if not all, Democrats favor an open deliberation, according to a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
His GOP counterpart, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), is undecided. “He’s heard good arguments on both sides . . . and is very explicit about being of two minds,” said John Czwartacki, Lott’s spokesman.
Among Republicans opposing open deliberations are Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Paul Coverdell of Georgia. Coverdell said that, as in any other trial, the debate among the jurors is closed.
Protracted Session May Be Byproduct
Whether in open or closed session, deliberations could take up to 25 hours, with 15 minutes allocated to each senator, which would be spread across two or three days.
Opponents of open deliberations have argued that, once the cameras are turned on, senators are sure to use up all of their allotted time, thus ensuring a protracted session. “It’d be nothing but canned speeches,” said an advisor to a senior Senate Republican who opposes open deliberations.
To address that concern, advocates of open debate are floating a proposal to reduce to 10 minutes the time given to each senator.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) argued that open deliberations would help start the nation on a healing process in the wake of the impeachment trial.
“We can begin by allowing the American people to see this terrible, unseemly episode in our nation’s history end on a note of rational and thoughtful debate,” he said.
Lieberman also is one of the senators pressing for censure of Clinton after the impeachment trial ends.
“It’s very important . . . for the Senate to make a final statement here about the unacceptability of the president’s behavior and in that sense to try to set a standard for future presidents,” he said.
One undercurrent in the censure debate is that many Democrats fear their party would be vulnerable to GOP charges that they were insufficiently critical of the president’s behavior without an official denunciation after his presumed acquittal.
“There are some of us who believe that what the president did is wrong and that there should be something in the history books indicating that the . . . Senate so recognized,” Reid said Friday.
Even Harkin, who has been an ardent censure foe, said Friday that he may change his mind--after seeing “some of the more recent drafts” of a censure resolution.
Yet many Republicans remain adamantly opposed to censure “on the grounds that it is extra-constitutional [and] unconstitutional,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) added: “There are a number of us who do not believe . . . that any additional issues and tinkering and improvising of the Constitution are in the best interest of our future or the precedent-setting of our country. I don’t think it’s fair to the president. I don’t think it’s fair to our society.”
Only a simple majority would be required to pass a censure resolution.