What shapes a senator's vote

As members begin deliberating, they weigh not only guilt or innocence,but also principle and practicality.

They've heard the arguments. They've seen the videotaped depositions of witnesses. Now, after five weeks of official silence, the 100 senators sitting as jurors and judges in President Clinton's impeachment trial today begin final deliberations among themselves.

It's a complicated moment for the Senate. There are, of course, the fundamental ethical and legal determinations of Mr. Clinton's guilt or innocence.

But these are mingled with other considerations - party loyalty, national harmony, and the reputation of the elite body itself. How much weight these issues should carry is for each senator to decide - and the Senate's collective action is one that will be scrutinized for generations.

One Senate veteran, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, epitomized the individual struggles senators are going through as they weigh both crimes and consequences, principles and practicality.

"I have to live with myself. I have to live with my conscience. I have to live with the Constitution," said Senator Byrd in a television interview. Byrd explained he is torn between his belief that Clinton is guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and his worry that removing the president might harm the best interests of the country.

The job of Byrd and other senators is not made any easier by the wide open rules of impeachment trials. Under the rules, each of the 100 senators has complete freedom to rate the evidence and set the grounds for impeachment.

Moreover, as senators decide the president's future, they face pressure to make sure whatever they do looks good - for themselves, for the Senate, and ultimately in the sweep of history. "This really has been a watershed event for the US Senate," says Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah.

The question of political appearances is especially relevant to the first of three critical decisions the Senate will likely make this week: a vote expected today on whether to open the final deliberations to the public.

The vote is significant because it could offer senators their only formal opportunity to explain their views on impeachment both to a national audience and for the historical record. Under existing Senate rules, final deliberations are held behind closed doors, with each lawmaker allotted 15 minutes to speak.

But with most Americans opposed to conviction, and growing disapproval of the Senate's handling of the trial, a group of Democratic and Republican senators is seeking to open the deliberations. A two-thirds vote is required to change the rules.

"We have a new era of openness in government," says Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas. "To go into retreat ... is unthinkable," she says.

YET other senators oppose opening the deliberations, seeking to discourage public grandstanding and encourage a more forthright exchange. They argue that jury deliberations are traditionally carried out in private in the United States. More important, they say, the presence of television cameras would inhibit frankness.

"[It's] a whole lot more comfortable" without the television coverage, says Senator Bennett.

The second vital decision senators must make this week will be whether the president is guilty of charges contained in each of two articles of impeachment - alleging that he committed perjury and obstruction of justice in covering up his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

That decision, according to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, could come as early as Thursday.

Few believe that the Senate will produce the two-thirds vote - or 67 senators - required to convict the president. Still, the recent wavering by senior Democratic Senator Byrd suggests that a few surprises could still occur on such a weighty vote.

Yet many senators now believe a majority of members of the 55-to-45 Republican-controlled Senate will fail to find the president guilty on either charge, and ponder what message that would send to the nation. "I don't want a vote to acquit to be interpreted as exoneration," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine.

Such concerns - mainly among Democrats but also some Republicans - are driving a push to pass a strongly worded bipartisan censure of Clinton immediately following the expected acquittal.

"It is my hope that we could then move to a censure resolution," Senator Daschle said on Monday. A draft Democratic censure proposal - sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and backed by some Republicans - castigates Clinton's behavior as "reckless." It says he misled a grand jury and impeded evidence.

Supporters of a Senate censure argue it offers an opportunity for a bipartisan conclusion to the divisive impeachment episode.

Still, conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, call censure unconstitutional. They say it would set a bad precedent and undermine the separation of powers.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to What shapes a senator's vote
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today