For months, the drive to impeach President Clinton has run forward with a force as inexplicable as it has been unstoppable, even in the face of public opinion numbers that would usually send politicians screaming for the exits. But on Thursday much of that vaunted momentum seeped away. As one Democratic Senate aide put it, "The air has just gone out of the balloon."
On Wednesday, even the normally stalwart House managers appeared to be coming to terms with their impending defeat on the issue of bringing live witnesses to the Senate floor. There were some signs of frustration and some statements that appeared more intended to lash out at senators than gain their votes. Rep. James Rogan, the Republican House manager from California who just a day earlier interrogated Sidney Blumenthal, insisted that "If one senator has failed to personally sit through ... every deposition, that senator is not equipped to render a verdict on the impeachment trial." Very few senators sat through the videotaped depositions -- most sent staff, some watched highlights and some ignored the cinematic experience altogether.
Rogan's dozen House colleagues seemed barely able to summon up the steely determination they had shown only days before. In the end, the managers stripped their list of three witnesses down to a mere one -- Monica Lewinsky. But late Thursday afternoon, the Senate voted that request down by a decisive vote of 70-30, with 25 Republicans joining Democrats in deciding they'd heard enough from Lewinsky.
If Republicans were looking for the exits, Democrats seemed to be relishing their GOP colleagues' apparent discomfort. Senate Democrat Bob Torricelli told the New York Times that the Democrats were, at this point, really just "trying to save [the Republicans] from themselves." Democratic staffers were more fulsome in their coyly worded ridicule. "They're trying to serve two masters," one told Salon Thursday afternoon. "They're still searching for a way to give the [House managers] dignity. They're like Thelma and Louise. They're going right off the cliff."
In an even more telling sign of the shifting winds in the capital, even the Republicans' fall-back position -- the so-called "finding of fact" resolution proposed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine -- seemed to be losing support as rapidly as it had gained it earlier in the week. Collins and her allies argued that the Senate should go on record finding that Clinton had committed the underlying offenses, even if they later chose not to remove him from office.
The proposal was initially moved by Republican moderates, and it was pressed with the expectation that such a resolution could find at least some Democratic support. But few Senate Democrats seemed inclined to join the Republicans. As one Senate aide told Salon Thursday, Democrats weren't feeling a lot of pressure. "They need to come to us on this one." Some Democrats threatened that any finding of facts directed against the president might be met by Democratic-authored findings of fact that Kenneth Starr had committed various forms of prosecutorial abuse.
The Democrats' determination to oppose the plan was reinforced by a growing chorus of opinion on both sides of the aisle that a finding of fact resolution might in fact be unconstitutional. The same Democratic aide called the whole idea "a sham" and questioned why it had come so far without stronger criticism in the press. Even some on the right cautioned that it might either be unconstitutional or simply a bad idea because it would establish the precedent that a president could be found to have committed perjury and obstruction and yet still remain in office. When Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., denounced the idea in Wednesday's Washington Post as one that would "bastardize the impeachment process" a total absence of Democratic support seemed assured.
Of course, having so firmly tied their standard to strict constitutional procedure, it was difficult for Republicans to rationalize a last-minute effort to, in effect, find the president guilty but not vote to remove him. And many Republicans saw little to be gained from such a resolution absent at least nominal Democratic support.
But whatever the questions about the Collins proposal's dubious constitutionality, like many developments in the impeachment crisis, it really fell victim to the deeply polarized climate of the capital. Democrats, seeing the end in sight, felt no need to join the Republicans, and even spotted an opportunity to take the constitutional high ground by denouncing the proposal for perverting the impeachment process.
And many pro-impeachment Republicans condemned the idea as an unacceptable cop-out that would allow middle-of-the-roaders on both sides of the aisle to dodge the critical question of the president's guilt. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, called the proposal "an effort for politicians to protect themselves politically. The way out," he continued, "is to vote 'guilty' or 'not guilty' and live with it." While many had hoped that the Senate would end the trial on a note of bipartisan consensus, the sterner partisans on both sides of the aisle seem more inclined to end the trial with an up or down vote on the articles -- even one that falls largely along party lines.
A handful of senators floated last minute plans to guide the Senate through the final stages of the trial. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., scored points for originality -- if nothing else -- for his byzantine proposal, which would have the Senate adjourn the trial, vote a tough resolution of censure and then reconvene the trial for an up or down vote on the articles. But whatever the final choreography, the timetable for the denouement of the impeachment trial seems more and more set in stone. But then again, unlike death and taxes, in the world of impeachment, nothing is ever certain.