President Clinton himself was the source of a controversial proposal to recruit at least 34 Democratic senators to declare that they would not vote to convict Clinton of any impeachment charges lodged by the House, according to congressional and administration sources. The account by these sources directly contradicts White House assertions that the proposal originated on Capitol Hill.
The White House has attempted to distance the president from the proposal in recent days, after influential Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., strongly questioned the political and constitutional propriety of any such action. But congressional and administration sources have told Salon that it was Clinton himself who put forth the proposal in a conversation with Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., two weeks ago.
Daschle spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer declined to comment on any private conversations between the senator and the president. A White House spokesman did not return telephone calls.
If the House of Representatives were to vote articles of impeachment against Clinton, members of the Senate would then serve as a jury in considering those charges. At least two thirds, or 67 of the 100 senators, would have to vote for the conviction of Clinton for him to be removed from office. By recruiting 34 senators to back him against any future impeachment vote, Clinton was apparently hoping to short-circuit the impeachment process entirely, sending a message to the House that no matter what its findings, ultimately they would be disregarded.
Last Wednesday, Byrd denounced the proposal from the Senate floor, likening the White House lobbying of senators to "jury tampering":
"Senators may at some point have to sit as jurors in this matter, and will be required to take an oath before they do so," Byrd said. "This oath will be incumbent upon every senator should Articles of Impeachment come to this chamber. Here it is: 'I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment now pending I will do impartial Justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.'"
Then Byrd forcefully added: "I would suggest by way of friendly advice to the White House: Don't tamper with this jury. Don't tamper with this jury.
"[And] my friendly words of advice to my colleagues are these: We may have to sit as jurors. Don't let it be said that we allowed ourselves to be tampered with, no matter who attempts the tampering."
There is no specific legal prohibition against a president lobbying senators who might serve as a jury in an impeachment inquiry, and White House officials point out that impeachment is a unique process, one that is both political and legal. Legal experts question the ethical and constitutional propriety of any such activity, however.
Even though Byrd's comments received little media attention, they generated great concern at an already besieged White House, administration officials said. As a 40-year veteran of the Senate, former Senate majority leader and current ranking minority member on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd is certain to play a formidable role in any trial of the president. Because of his influence on other members, his position regarding impeachment could prove to be decisive in any close vote to remove Clinton from office.
Last week, White House officials began damage control by claiming Clinton had never in fact put forth the proposal to recruit the 34 senators to short-circuit any impeachment before it began. Administration officials asserted that the proposal originated not with Clinton, but with an unidentified Democratic senator who first suggested the proposal in a conversation with the president. They also claimed that the proposal was never a serious one to begin with.
But congressional and administration officials told Salon that some White House officials had made misleading statements to the press and public about the proposal. Some officials suggested that Clinton might even have misled his own staff regarding conversations that he had with some on Capitol Hill about the proposal.
One senior administration official told Salon that the White House is planning to reach out to Byrd and show him that it is taking no steps to go forward with the controversial proposal. "He is right on point," said the official. "And we want to assure him that this is something that we are no longer going to do, and that there are some grown-ups around."
A second senior White House official said: "We're being very deferential to both the House and the Senate as this process goes forward."
Administration officials told Salon that Clinton did not consult with his senior staff, including political aides and legal counsel, before discussing the proposal with Daschle and others on Capitol Hill: "If the president had asked anyone, he would have been told that preempting the impeachment process this way might in and of itself constitute an article of impeachment. From a legal vantage point, it was not a smart move," said a senior administration official. As for the political consequences of the proposal, the same official said: "We've already seen what they are."
The official also added, almost as an afterthought: "We shouldn't have lied about it. We should have just admitted that we made a mistake so that we could move on ... Now back to the chaos."