Cracks in the bipartisan fa

As House Republicans tried to depict their impeachment vendetta as a brave civil rights struggle, the important action was all taking place off-camera.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
January 16, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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If you missed Day 1 of the impeachment trial proceedings, don't worry. The House Republican managers' presentation offered little new or unexpected for anyone who is remotely familiar with the case against President Clinton. Network coverage began to drop off early, which made sense, because the real action was all taking place off-camera.

There were a few notable exercises in hyperbole. Recognizing the profound unpopularity of the impeachment proceedings, especially among women and minorities, Republicans are now going to great lengths to remind Americans that the Monica Lewinsky mess grew out of the president's alleged efforts to obstruct a federal civil rights case -- and that's Civil Rights, with a capital C and R. To hear Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R.-Wisc., defend the House case, you might have thought Clinton was on trial for bringing back Jim Crow, not lying about a sexual liaison with an office subordinate. After recounting the civil rights gains of this century, Sensenbrenner told senators "it's not time to abandon" the country's heroic struggle for civil rights. He challenged them to follow in the footsteps of those "who achieved equal rights for all Americans during the 1960s in Congress, in the courts and on the streets and in the buses and at the lunch counters."


But besides Sensenbrenner's amusing performance, there was almost no reason to watch the proceedings. They provided little clue to the only real question at issue: When will the acclaimed bipartisan agreement on trial proceedings last Friday break down? The truly significant event of recent days -- and the one that points to the direction of the rest of the proceedings -- was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's decision earlier this week to sidestep the original agreement by coordinating with House Republicans on the issue of witnesses.

In a move that many Senate Democrats see as a violation of the bipartisan agreement, Lott appointed a three-man committee made up only of Republican senators to coordinate standards for deciding how and when witnesses should be called. The committee is made up of Jon Kyl of Arizona, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- each of whom have publicly called for a trial with witnesses. Senate Democrats were later invited to join the committee -- as was the White House -- but both declined. Both sides may argue over who is to blame, but the important point is that both sides have parted ways.

The reality is that bipartisan proceedings are all but impossible, because the underlying legitimacy of the trial itself is hotly disputed. Stung by Lott's original attempt to organize a short trial without witnesses, House managers have stepped up their lobbying for a so-called full trial. Anything short of that would hang them out to dry, they argue, and cement the impression that the House decision to impeach the president was a rash and reckless move by a willful partisan House. That argument has gained some currency with Senate Republicans. So the GOP House managers have been pushing the Republican senators ever more aggressively to press for a full trial, not only with witnesses, but potentially with witnesses like Kathleen Willey, the former White House volunteer who was allegedly groped by the president in the Oval Office. The New York Times also revealed that the House managers tried to speak with Lewinsky, but were rebuffed by her lawyers.


Senate Democrats are beginning to realize that getting the votes to dismiss the charges against the president will be an uphill struggle at best, as will efforts to block the testimony of witnesses. John Chafee, the long-serving Rhode Island Republican, is the prototypical Northeastern Republican moderate. And he signaled over the weekend that he believes some witnesses should be called. So do Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and the normally moderate Specter.

This all puts the Senate Democrats in a funny position -- similar, but significantly different from that which their House colleagues faced in late December. If the upcoming votes on dismissal and witnesses come down to party-line votes -- as the shenanigans over witnesses seem to foretell -- there will be little the Democrats can do but grin and bear it. With a mere 45 votes, Democrats can do nothing to affect the course of trial without a half-dozen defections from the other side. They can, of course, guarantee an eventual acquittal for the president -- as long they do not suffer massive defections from their own caucus, something that seems unlikely.

That means that while Clinton will almost certainly be acquitted at the end of the trial, the Lewinsky crisis itself will almost certainly drag on. The trial's legacy won't be truth for the nation or vindication for the president, but bitter partisan division. The real verdict on this whole sordid mess will only be rendered when voters return to the ballot box.

Joshua Micah Marshall

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

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Bill Clinton Jeff Sessions Olympia J. Snowe