Pawing through the detritus of impeachment

The trial left an atmosphere of unusual bipartisan harmony amongSenators, so maybe concrete achievements are possible

How's this for a metaphor? Sports announcer Marv Albert, cast into outer darkness by NBC 17 months ago for a sex scandal, is going back to work, this time for Turner Sports. The Turner people think the fans are ready to forgive and forget the dark side of the popular broadcaster.

President Clinton is back from impeachment with a 68 percent approval rating in a Washington Post poll, although 54 percent blame him for creating the mess.

Behind these numbers lie ideological and generational fault lines that the scandal brought to the surface. The impeachment drive seemed to be propelled by a sense of moral mission against the sins of sexual misbehavior and swearing falsely, a mission that many Americans did not share with equal fervor.

It would be tempting to surmise that the older senators were more judgmental than those of the free-wheeling Clinton generation of the '60s.

But an analysis of the Senate vote presents a different picture. The average age of senators is 58. But the average age of Republican senators who crossed the line on one or both articles of impeachment is 64.

And, if you eliminate the two relatively young women, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the average age of Republican men voting to acquit on one or both counts is 68 - a full 10 years older than the Senate average.

So, impeachment was not, as film director John Waters told The New York Times, only the product of "a bunch of mean old white men."

No old man came up with a bigger surprise than 81-year-old Robert Byrd, high priest of Constitution and tradition. On CBS last Sunday, he disclosed that he had already written his speech supporting conviction, then tore it up and wrote another one supporting acquittal, although convinced that Mr. Clinton had committed high crimes and misdemeanors. It was, he said, because senators "must listen to what Americans are saying," and the people didn't want him removed.

So, for all the senators' talk of consulting Constitution and conscience and ignoring vox populi, the voices of a disapproving public seeped into the sealed chamber and stayed the Senate's hand.

What now? Will Clinton and Congress be able to put their antagonisms behind them to manage the affairs of the country?

"I don't think impeachment has poisoned the climate legislatively," says Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

And Republican leader Trent Lott all along said he wanted to expedite the impeachment process so that "we could be talking education, defense, and tax cuts, and Social Security by Feb. 23."

The impeachment trial left an atmosphere of unusual bipartisan harmony among the Senators, perhaps because they had to sit together in silence for all those hours.

The House Republicans, though, are likely to find themselves arguing about who got them into the humiliating impeachment mess.

Adding to the tension in the House is the word that Clinton, bonding as never before with the House Democrats, will be all out to help them win back a majority in the next election.

That means he will be gunning for Republicans, although not especially for the 13 impeachment managers, the White House says.

GIVEN that Clinton will be working closely with House Democrats, the Republicans must decide on what posture will avail them most come election day.

To escape the label of "impeachment Congress," they may help to ring up legislative accomplishments in closely watched areas like Social Security, Medicare, school construction, patients' bill of rights, and tobacco.

But concessions to the administration may land them in trouble with core conservatives.

John Dingell, the dean of House Democrats, says that the Republicans had better cooperate more actively with the Democrats or people will "believe this is a do-nothing Congress."

BUT asking the majority to act like a groveling minority just because it lost the battle of impeachment may be asking too much.

What cannot be predicted is what sort of relationship the president, bearing the scars of impeachment and some harsh personal attacks by the managers, will establish with the House.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart may say, "The only sentiment here is relief that everyone will be focusing once more on the nation's business," but that is apparently not the only sentiment harbored by the president, who, in private, is said to have called the House "that Stalinist place."

A year's accumulation of grudges will not quickly dissolve.

Yet the next year-and-a-half can be a legislatively productive period if our legislators, with an eye on the next election, decide that concrete achievements are in their electoral interests.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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