Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, a freethinking Democrat, was the only senator Wednesday to break party ranks when the Senate opted to keep the impeachment trial of President Clinton alive with closed-door testimony.
None of Feingold’s 99 colleagues was surprised.
Long known for his independent streak, Feingold joined 55 Republicans across the aisle in voting to defeat a proposal by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) that would have dismissed the charges against Clinton immediately.
Minutes later, the boyish-looking senator, known as a hard-liner on campaign finance reform, bucked his party again when he supported the request by House prosecutors to question Monica S. Lewinsky and two other witnesses.
Feingold stressed, however, that neither party could count on his vote on the ultimate question of whether Clinton’s conduct merits his removal from office.
“I want to be clear that my vote not to dismiss this case does not mean that I would vote to convict the president and remove him from office,” Feingold, 45, explained in a statement after the tally. “I have not reached a decision on that question.”
He said he came to the conclusion that it would be unfair to “short-circuit this trial” through dismissal.
“I believe in order to dismiss the case at this point a senator should be of the opinion that it is not possible for the House managers to show that the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors,” Feingold said. “I simply cannot say that the House managers cannot prevail.”
Sounding for a moment like his Democratic colleagues, Feingold said Wednesday that there are some “serious problems” with the case presented by the House prosecution team so far. But he has won praise from Republicans for indicating concern with the obstruction-of-justice allegations against the president. The perjury case he considers far weaker.
“I regard this as a close case in some respects and the best course to follow is to allow both sides a fair opportunity to make the case they wish to make,” said Feingold, who won a second six-year term last November after a close reelection battle.
Even without Feingold, the other 44 Democrats formed a bloc more than large enough to doom the effort to remove Clinton, which requires 67 votes. Their unity, however, made Feingold’s votes stand out even more.
“I’m glad that at least one showed that this is not a partisan effort,” remarked Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), one of the 13 House managers prosecuting the case. “We would have hoped that there could be others.”
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, another freethinking Democrat who has been harshly critical of the president’s actions, said he decided at the last minute that the case ought to end now.
“I certainly respect his right to dissent,” Lieberman said of Feingold. “I’ve been there myself.”
Florida Sen. Bob Graham was another whom Democrats feared might rebel. But he voted for dismissal and against calling witnesses despite expressing some anxiety earlier in the week about the obstruction allegations.
For a brief moment, however, Feingold was not alone. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, joined him in casting a vote against dismissing the case.
No. Just after she voted, Mikulski rose anxiously to notify Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is presiding over the trial, that her “nay” ought to be changed to a “yea.”