Lott's losing control

Impeachment proceedings in the Senate could get as ugly as in the House.


Joshua Micah Marshall
January 7, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Hopes for an expedited Senate trial and a speedy resolution of the impeachment crisis were dimming Tuesday as senators returned to Washington for the beginning of the 106th Congress.

Only a week ago it seemed that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was well on his way to cobbling together a bipartisan coalition in favor of a rapid Senate impeachment trial -- a formality that could be brought to a speedy conclusion by a procedural vote, after the equivalent of opening arguments. But early Tuesday afternoon Lott met the press to announce that trial proceedings would begin Thursday, while studiously avoiding any mention of how the trial would be conducted or how long it would last.

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That's because he has no idea. Lott didn't take any questions at his brief press conference, and it's little surprise. The Senate impeachment trial is Lott's first real moment in the public spotlight since he assumed the post of party leader when Bob Dole resigned from the Senate in 1996. But Lott's chances of concluding the mess in a way that will enhance his stature and save the GOP from further misfortune seem to be fading fast. Like so many times before, a new act in the long-standing impeachment drama is about to begin with no script for how it will end.

In a development that should alarm senators on both sides of the aisle, the events in the Senate are progressing much the way they did in the House. Bipartisan sobriety is giving way to extremism and political infighting, and reducing the possibility of a swift resolution to the crisis.

Many House Republicans got on the impeachment bandwagon because they saw it as a free vote -- the Senate would rapidly conclude the matter, and certainly stop short of removing Clinton from office. And at first it seemed likely to turn out that way. Bipartisan negotiations to settle the matter quickly got under way. But just as occurred in the House, the Senate Republicans who are most committed to the impeachment program have become increasingly emboldened to fight all attempts at compromise. And neither the members of the Senate Republican leadership nor party elders have seemed able to stem the tide.

Most Republicans recognize that a long, drawn-out trial would do their party great harm for the foreseeable future. Yet few of those senators who have publicly criticized Lott's efforts seem to have any game plan for avoiding such an outcome. Just as in the House, Republican calls to follow what they call "the constitutional process" have placed them on a course of seemingly unstoppable forward motion. When Henry Hyde sent his 81 questions to President Clinton just after the November election, he set in motion a chain of events that moved ineluctably toward impeachment. Republican criticism of Lott's efforts to organize a quick trial are propelling the Senate in a similar direction -- toward a protracted and possibly agonizing trial in which no one will emerge unscathed.

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To get a sense of the drift of events you only have to look at the numerous options that have been on the table recently. Just after the House voted articles of impeachment, the question for the Senate was whether there had to be a trial, or whether the Senate could just move immediately to censure. Then the issue was whether a trial would have to at least formally start before the Senate could move to censure. In the last few days the choice became trial-lite or a full-blown trial with witnesses. Now even many Democrats are conceding that some witnesses will likely be called. Their only question is how many and for how long.

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It wasn't supposed to be this way. Besides the Senate's generally more sober attitude, one of the factors that seemed to make compromise more likely in the Senate was the leadership of Trent Lott. Newt Gingrich's fall from power -- and the leadership vacuum it created -- greatly quickened the progress of impeachment in the House. Without the steadying hand of strong leadership, initiative in the House quickly fell to firebrands like Tom DeLay and the stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee. Lott was supposed to stem the rebellion with his effective party leadership. But he has hardly fared better. Sen. James Inofe of Oklahoma said that the Lott plan would mean "shirking our constitutional duty," and called it "a whitewash." On Tuesday night all signs pointed to the conclusion that the process was quickly spinning out of Lott's control.

The reason for all this is not difficult to understand. Just as it was when the House was considering articles of impeachment against the president late last year, the chorus of pressure and vituperation from the Republican activist base has been intense and unremitting. "If the conservative base feels like Clinton is getting off the hook," GOP campaign consultant Jay Severin told Salon on Monday, "they'll never forgive or forget, especially if Lott has something to do with it. There's no excuse, no excuse."

The problem for Republicans who are inclined to make a deal is that impeachment and punishment have become for many Republicans an idée fixe -- a single dominating obsession, and one that brings together all the diverse complaints and discontents that have characterized American conservatism in the late 1990s. "Conservatives have never had something like this to build a jihad around," says Severin, and they realize that they may never get this kind of chance again.

Senate Republican staffers who spoke to Salon early this week seemed indifferent to the political repercussions Republicans may face for prolonging the impeachment drama. But then many of those who are most intent on pushing forward come from conservative states where they are unlikely to themselves face consequences for their actions. Senate conservatives don't seem willing to antagonize their right-wing base to help Republicans from more moderate states, who will likely pay the heaviest political price for a long Senate trial.

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But while media accounts of the debate within the Senate have been cast as a struggle between the Republican Party's moderate and conservative wings, it actually has relatively little to do with ideology. (Lott is not a Rockefeller Republican.) It's more a struggle between the party's pragmatic establishment -- the people who like to win elections -- and its committed activist grass roots. While it is widely, and probably correctly, assumed that most of the Republican Senate moderates would welcome some bipartisan deal to cut short a trial, none of the GOP senators who have been most conspicuous in support of the trial-lite option come from the party's moderate wing. These include Lott, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Slade Gorton of Washington and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. All come from the party's conservative wing; Lott and McConnell are among the Senate's most conservative members.

Despite their protestations about the rule of law and the constitutional process, Republicans too can read the polls. And the dip in GOP favorability ratings over recent weeks has been precipitous. Ever since late December members of the party establishment -- regardless of partisan complexion -- have been clamoring for some sort of conclusion to the impasse. Rich Galen, executive director of GOPAC -- Newt Gingrich's former organization -- sent out a private memo the week after the impeachment that said that Lott, Bob Dole, Democratic Sen. Bob Byrd and former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell should be locked in a room and shouldn't be let out "until they come up with a solution which stops short of a trial, but goes far enough so the White House can't claim a victory."

That sort of thinking is shared by senators like Lott and McConnell, who want to get the Republicans out of the impeachment circus and back to the sort of policy agenda that they will need to position themselves for a solid showing in 2000. As majority leader, it's Lott's responsibility to get the Republicans through 2000 with their majority intact. McConnell is the Senate Republicans' lord of soft money and the head of their campaign committee. Unlike many grass-roots GOP activists, he has his eyes firmly on winning in 2000.

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What has received less attention in the impeachment coverage is that 2000 was already going to be a shaky year for the Republicans in the Senate. This is something Lott and McConnell haven't forgotten. The senators who have to run in 2000 are those who last ran in the Republican jubilee year of 1994. A number of the Republican freshman senators are strongly ideological conservatives from moderate-to-liberal states who just managed to squeak into office on 1994's Republican tide. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Spencer Abraham of Michigan, both of whom managed only narrow victories in 1994, are in this category, and Democrats have been waiting to get a crack at them for six years. Lott and McConnell want to do everything they can to lay the groundwork to retain those seats. And a long impeachment trial that could range into the middle of the year certainly will not help.

Many on both sides of the aisle also understand that the window of opportunity for a relatively harmonious compromise may be closing. Washington journalists frequently bandy about clichés about how the Senate is more reasoned and bipartisan than the boisterous and rancorous House. And it's true, but only so far: Senators may be more insulated from public pressures, and more friendships may exist between senators across party lines, but the same passions and pressures that pushed the House to the brink of chaos in December are also present within the Senate.

And once the back-channel negotiations break down into open confrontation it may be very difficult to put the cat back into the bag. If and when witnesses are called, tempers and passions could quickly become too inflamed to find any solution short of a trial, and a vote on conviction or acquittal. As of late Tuesday afternoon, unity among Senate Democrats seemed to be strong and, if anything, strengthening. So removal from office still seems a distant possibility. But the chances for ending the impeachment drama quickly are rapidly diminishing.

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Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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