Back from the brink

A Senate compromise on the impeachment trial ends the partisan bickering, for now.


Joshua Micah Marshall
January 9, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

On Friday, for the first time in weeks, the long-running impeachment drama took a step toward consensus rather than confrontation. On Thursday, the day the trial officially began, the tenor of proceedings seemed to be skidding rapidly in the direction the House followed last month. But after steady negotiations on Thursday evening, and a Friday morning closed-door meeting of all 100 senators, the outlines of a compromise emerged, and late Friday afternoon the Senate voted unanimously to adopt the compromise road map agreed to in the morning meeting.

The agreement seems, on balance, good news for the White House, because it provides several opportunities for the Senate to vote on whether to move the trial forward. A simple majority will be able to halt the proceedings after the initial phase of the trial and block controversial proposals about witnesses and evidence. One Republican insider called the agreement a "white flag of truce or surrender by the Republicans."

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Under the new compromise agreement, trial proceedings would commence on Thursday (pretrial motions will begin on Wednesday). Each side -- the House managers and the White House -- will have 24 hours to present its case. This, for instance, could mean three successive eight-hour days for each side, followed by 16 more hours in which individual senators will be allowed to question the two parties.

One key point of the agreement is that each side's presentation will be limited to "those publicly available materials that have been submitted to or produced by the House Judiciary Committee." That's a fancy way of saying no surprises, no "new evidence," none of the as-yet-unreleased Jane Doe evidence that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay has been telling senators to look at over at the House's Ford Office Building.

Another key point for White House supporters is that after the initial presentations by each side, the first motion in order will be a motion to dismiss. That means 51 senators can end the proceedings then and there. If that vote fails, the Senate will then move to consider whether to call witnesses. But each important decision to move forward will have to pass the same majority vote. Each side will propose a slate of witnesses. A majority will then have to vote first to depose the witnesses behind closed doors, and then vote again to actually bring them forward to testify -- all making for what one Democratic staffer called an "incredibly deliberative process."

In a sense, all the Senate has agreed to do is to put off for a couple of weeks the decision the body faced Thursday afternoon: whether to have a full trial with witnesses, or the "trial-lite" option favored by the Democrats. But it is nonetheless true that the compromise has managed to restore a measure of stability and calm to a Senate that only a day before seemed ready to spiral into partisan chaos.

The Democrats also believe that time is on their side. Once the initial trial proceedings are under way and each side has argued its case, Democrats reason that Republicans will have a tough time arguing that witnesses should also be called. When the House Judiciary Committee was deciding how to conduct its own inquiry late last year, committee Republicans argued that the Starr Report contained more than enough sworn testimony to be the basis of their decision. Senate Democrats plan to press the House managers to explain why witnesses should be called in the Senate when the House proceeded with none.

Senate Democrats were particularly happy with the decision to require a new majority vote at each stage of the process. When the House dealt with the impeachment matter in December, the full House voted to open the impeachment inquiry and then left the entire issue to the Judiciary Committee, until the articles of impeachment came to the floor of the full House in late December.

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The Senate process will go much differently. If the Senate decides to move on to witnesses, each decision will have to follow the same two-step process: one vote to depose each side's witnesses, another to actually bring them forward to testify. Every senator will have to go on record at every stage by voting whether to continue ahead or not. That means that those who want to apply pressure to wavering moderates to cut the trial short will have repeated opportunities to do so.

But the most significant aspect of Friday's compromise may have less to do with particulars than with the subtle shift it is likely to create in the momentum of the proceedings. When the House voted for impeachment late last year, some reasoned that once the process moved to the Senate, the blame for continuing to draw out the process would shift to the president and the Democrats. Even if the public's view of the underlying questions remained the same, public weariness with the trial might place increasing pressure on the president to resign or place mounting pressure on Senate Democrats to make him do so.

Friday's agreement, however, places that burden squarely back on the shoulders of the Senate Republicans and the House managers. The Republican insider who considers the agreement a "white flag" told Salon late Friday afternoon that even though the Republicans have shown an initial willingness to ignore the polls and move ahead with a trial, the cumulative pressure of public opinion could increasingly weigh on Republican senators and lead them to end the Lewinsky matter at long last.


Joshua Micah Marshall

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

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