What Shapes a Senator's Vote as Members Begin Deliberating, They Weigh Not Only Guilt or Innocence,but Also Principle and Practicality

By Ann Scott Tyson, Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 1999 | Go to article overview

What Shapes a Senator's Vote as Members Begin Deliberating, They Weigh Not Only Guilt or Innocence,but Also Principle and Practicality


Ann Scott Tyson, Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


They've heard the arguments. They've seen the videotaped depositions of witnesses. Now, after five weeks of official silence, the 100 senators sitting as jurors and judges in President Clinton's impeachment trial today begin final deliberations among themselves.

It's a complicated moment for the Senate. There are, of course, the fundamental ethical and legal determinations of Mr. Clinton's guilt or innocence.

But these are mingled with other considerations - party loyalty, national harmony, and the reputation of the elite body itself. How much weight these issues should carry is for each senator to decide - and the Senate's collective action is one that will be scrutinized for generations. One Senate veteran, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, epitomized the individual struggles senators are going through as they weigh both crimes and consequences, principles and practicality. "I have to live with myself. I have to live with my conscience. I have to live with the Constitution," said Senator Byrd in a television interview. Byrd explained he is torn between his belief that Clinton is guilty of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and his worry that removing the president might harm the best interests of the country. The job of Byrd and other senators is not made any easier by the wide open rules of impeachment trials. Under the rules, each of the 100 senators has complete freedom to rate the evidence and set the grounds for impeachment. Moreover, as senators decide the president's future, they face pressure to make sure whatever they do looks good - for themselves, for the Senate, and ultimately in the sweep of history. "This really has been a watershed event for the US Senate," says Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah. The question of political appearances is especially relevant to the first of three critical decisions the Senate will likely make this week: a vote expected today on whether to open the final deliberations to the public. The vote is significant because it could offer senators their only formal opportunity to explain their views on impeachment both to a national audience and for the historical record. Under existing Senate rules, final deliberations are held behind closed doors, with each lawmaker allotted 15 minutes to speak. But with most Americans opposed to conviction, and growing disapproval of the Senate's handling of the trial, a group of Democratic and Republican senators is seeking to open the deliberations. …

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