Friday’s historic bipartisan closed Senate caucus was by all accounts one of the few times in memory that senators put aside their egos and their press flacks and attempted to do the right thing for the American people. My boss, no simp, called it one of the greatest moments of his Senate career.
But as senators basked in the glow of bipartisan accommodation, most insiders knew it marked a pleasant calm before a storm of partisan warfare returns to Washington.
Senators who were friends on Friday are already plotting against one another. And this time, there doesn’t seem much that can save either side. Friday, we were all on Noah’s Ark singing happily, wearing our raincoats. But by Monday it was clear: This is one leaky boat, and there aren’t any bipartisan life preservers.
The devil is in the details, they always say. Upon further reflection, both sides now have to view the details as a map to the river of no return. We should have known. When Ted Kennedy and Phil Gramm are crafting bipartisan treaties, the apocalypse is upon us.
To begin with, the deal stipulates that the House managers have 24 hours to present their case and then the White House gets 24 hours. Sounds easy, but the mind games are getting good. If you start on Thursday, when, politically, do you want to get done? Republicans are playing cat and mouse. Maybe they’ll use their whole 24 hours and maybe they won’t. In truth, they’d like nothing more than to make the Democrats start their defense on Saturday — and yes, right now they’re talking about working on Saturdays — lined right up against the NFL playoffs.
Once the 48 hours of testimony and presentations are complete, the senators will turn to the question of whether to call witnesses. Given the Bible-size Starr Report and its appendices, the House Judiciary Committee’s report, not to mention every major news outlet’s accumulated wisdom for the past year, one has to wonder what nuggets of wisdom the witnesses are expected to reveal. But sex sells, and Republican senators seem determined to bring us Monica Lewinsky, up close and personal.
To get to the witnesses, two motions will be filed. First, a motion to dismiss, and then a motion to issue subpoenas and depose witnesses. We spend our hours now arguing in back rooms and at dimly lit tables about what the motion to dismiss will look like.
Remember this: The wording of that motion, and how many votes it gets, will be the only thing that ends up mattering. Here’s why:
Democrats need to look like they tried to be impartial. Republicans may end up needing a censure framework. So Democrats will seek a motion that says one of two things: First, even if the facts as alleged are true, the president’s acts are not high crimes; or, second, that we’ve taken a look at perjury and obstruction of justice and it doesn’t seem to us that those crimes occurred.
Democrats have got to craft language that gives them cover: We looked at the evidence, and there’s no reason to go on — in words that will hold all, or almost all, 45 Democrats. Clinton’s party could split on how tough on the president their language should be. But if they manage to hold together the caucus, Democrats will say to Republicans: “Look, you’ll never get a two-thirds vote to impeach, and so this should end. Let’s censure.”
Republicans can either make a deal or go to war. And all the evidence indicates they’ll go to war — if war means a protracted trial. All the crowing about how the Gramm-Kennedy agreement built in an escape hatch, which would let the Senate end the trial after the 48 hours of presentations, ignored the fact that the Democrats will never get six Republican votes to end the trial without witnesses. Even moderates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who may not ultimately vote to convict the president, are saying they think the matter warrants witnesses.
And conservatives are determined to refuse a deal, and have the long, drawn-out trial. Their party approval rating is already the lowest in recorded history. Their best option may be no conviction, but no censure, either. Then the public would be mad at every politician in Washington.
When the motion to dismiss fails, as it inevitably will, the president’s lawyers will go to war. They will call every witness they can, contest every point and make the trial bloody. It’s what they are trained to do. Democrats can’t want that. They have won the first rounds. They have the public on their side, according to polls. Their elder statesmen will beg the White House to “just hang in there, we have the votes.”
But trained attack dogs don’t play just to stay ahead in the polls. Their job is to go for the throat and bloody the opposition. Then we get to the best part: While the bipartisan agreement was praised because it seemed to force the Senate to vote on a package of proposed witnesses, not judge each witness one by one, that all may fall apart. It’s now possible the Senate could end up voting on each witness, up or down. And that will be a nightmare.
Like everything in Washington, Friday’s agreement amounted to another lawyer and lobbyist protection act. The way I figure it, each potential witness will need lobbyists and lawyers, both for and against. We could see unprecedented campaigns and alliances. The Christian Coalition will mobilize on behalf of calling Monica Lewinsky as a witness, the first time America’s biggest Christian lobby came out behind a purveyor of oral sex. The AFL-CIO could oppose calling Bettie Currie, rising to the defense of a besieged federal worker. The NAACP will attack the focus on Vernon Jordan, whose only crime is helping the president’s friends — Lewinsky, Web Hubbell — find gainful employment.
Meanwhile, we can’t introduce any bills, nor have any hearings, on anything other than impeachment. After Jan. 19, we may be allowed to have hearings in the mornings, but not in the afternoons, meaning nothing will get done. If we do end up in a long, bloody trial, look for the Democrats to object to anything else moving except the trial. It could be a long, hot winter. Or is that spring?
I am canceling my April vacation plans. June looks good.