All the King's Horses and Men

Article excerpt

The weather outside was frightful, but the solemnity of Senate traditions tempered the tense discussions over just how to proceed with the trial of President Clinton. It will get worse.

Frigid the weather may have been in Washington as the lawmakers of the 106th Congress gathered during the first week of January to swear their oaths of office. However, there was plenty of hot air in the corridors and offices of the Capitol and in television studios to make up for it. Senators tend to mind their language more than their rougher counterparts in the House -- their chamber, after all, is meant to be the more deliberative body. Even so, the grand Senate manners of yesteryear and the decorous courtesy of the upper chamber couldn't disguise the heat of Clinton impeachment trial debate on and off camera -- nor the alarm of senators, who now have been pitched into the eye of the Lewinsky storm.

Not since the almighty hubbub over the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court have senators been so anxious about the risks to the good standing of their own chamber. Hooliganism in the House is one thing -- that's expected from the "lower orders." But the prospect of their own stately and consensus-seeking chamber being engulfed in a rancorous political brawl with who knows what electoral and personal consequences fills senators with despair. Will any of them have to stand before a microphone, reference some ancient sexual indiscretion and disappear into private life in the manner of the unfortunate Bob Livingston over on the House side? Caught in the full glare of history, with its threat of bitter partisanship and menace of dirt-digging private eyes and kiss-and-tell flings, they would rather the light moved on -- and quickly.

And so right up to the eve and beyond of the appearance in their midst of the stoop-shouldered Chief Justice William Rehnquist there was much Senate scrambling to fashion a deal, to secure a consensus and to curtail the ordeal of hearing about presidential peccadilloes. Just the evidence itself, its subject matter and the thought of testimony about oral sex, thongs and presumably unlit cigars leaves them horrified. Is their chamber to be degraded by such profanity and the spectacle of, say, Monica Lewinsky describing exotic sex acts with the president in the Oval Office? "What will this degenerate into? Where did he touch you? How did he touch you? How did it feel?" fussed Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.

Institutional culture is a powerful thing. Few are immune to its influence. who would have thought that a onetime conservative bomb thrower like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi would jump at the chance to lead "All the King's horses and All the King's men" to restore this Humpty-Dumpty to his place again. But there he was in the lead-up to the formal start of the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years, maneuvering with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to fashion agreement on an abbreviated judicial procedure that would condense the raw meat of the Lewinsky matter into just a few days of awfulness and presumably end with censure in lieu of impeachment.

It all looked good when the senators were out of town and scattered in their home states for Christmas. But once back, opposition within the GOP caucus to a minitrial grew, and not just among conservative Republicans. GOP moderates, such as Maine's Susan Collins, objected to a subversion of the "orderly" constitutional process of impeachment or believed the House should have the right to present a full case, including witnesses, to back up the two articles of impeachment -- one accusing the president of perjury, the other of obstruction of justice.

At a formal GOP caucus 48 hours before the swearing of senators as impeachment jurors, Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum delivered a tough speech, arguing a minitrial would undermine the House and delegitimize that chamber's decision to vote articles of impeachment against Clinton. …

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