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Trial drives wedge into GOP ranks

Senate Republicans seek a quick end, but fret about strainingrelations with House.

In one of the most emotional outpourings of the impeachment trial, a beleaguered Rep. Henry Hyde accused the Senate of lacking "respect" for his "blue collar" prosecutorial team of House Republicans.

The stinging charge was aimed at least as much at the Senate's Republicans as at its Democrats.

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With crucial votes expected today on whether to dismiss the trial or go forward with witnesses, Mr. Hyde knows well that it is his fellow Republicans - not Democrats - who will set the scope of the trial. With a 55-to-45 majority, Republicans control the 51 votes needed to give House prosecutors the full-fledged trial they demand.

But will the Republicans agree?

In a trial propelled both by politics and law, the Senate GOP majority is struggling with a no-win choice: Vote for witnesses and lengthen a highly unpopular trial that has even senators fatigued - or reject witnesses in a political slap in the face to House comrades.

"The only way [Senate Republicans] can please the House 'managers' [prosecutors] is to go straight into the face of public opinion," says political scientist Gary Jacobson at the University of California at San Diego.

But GOP senators, who represent far more diverse and less solidly conservative constituents than do House members, will only go so far, analysts say. Few predict a vote to dismiss will pass, but the vote on witnesses is considered too close to call.

"They want to accommodate House managers as long as possible, but they will not plank for them," predicts Mr. Jacobson.

'Weariness' over witnesses

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Senate Republicans confirmed that some in their ranks are reluctant to prolong President Clinton's impeachment trial by hearing from witnesses.

"There is uniform weariness with this in our conference," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon. "There are a number of my colleagues who will not likely vote for witnesses."

While agreeing that the need for witnesses was "diminishing," Senator Smith and others said they would vote to approve witnesses sought by the House team. The vote today will determine only whether witnesses are subpoenaed and deposed. Further votes would be required for witnesses to testify in person before the Senate.

House prosecutors argue that ruling out witnesses would be historically unprecedented in an impeachment trial. The search for truth, Hyde told the Senate Jan. 25, must not be "trumped by an exit strategy."

More pragmatically, the House team is trying to shore up support by asserting that witnesses will not necessarily mean a much longer trial. For the Senate vote today, they plan to present a winnowed down list of only three to six witnesses, including former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and presidential secretary Betty Currie. Moreover, they say time for depositions and questioning can be limited.

Divide and conquer?

Yet as House prosecutors make impassioned, last-minute appeals to their Senate colleagues, the White House defense team is attempting to drive deeper the wedge between them.

While decrying the push for witnesses as "a fishing expedition" by prosecutors, White House lawyers urged senators to follow the people's will and end the trial. "Calling witnesses is not the answer," argued Clinton lawyer Nicole Seligman. "All the evidence you need is before you."

Yet beyond their considerations of the trial itself, Republican senators are aware of the political consequences of voting against witnesses. Such a move could send a public message that the House GOP majority acted unwisely when it voted last month - largely along party lines - to impeach a president for the first time in 130 years.

Indeed, Hyde has said House prosecutors are persevering despite a "hostile environment," stating they are marching "into the jaws of ... political death."

Republican senators may worry that if the impeachment debate badly discredits the House GOP majority, it could cost their party control over the House of Representatives in the 2000 election. House Republicans now hold a slim 223-to-211 majority. "There is some sense of shared interest" that is pushing Senate Republicans "to have the kind of process that isn't embarrassing to the House," says Jacobson.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott has stressed that he wants a process that is "fair" to House managers and affords them the opportunity to make their case. But he is constrained in his ability to pressure moderate and independent-minded senators, especially on what are considered votes of conscience.

Senators on Jan. 26 considered replacing live witness testimony with video-taped depositions, an option Hyde considered "second best." "We have to be realistic," he said. "We are trying to adapt as best we can without diminishing significantly the effectiveness of our case."

GOP split dates to 1994

The impeachment dilemma is likely to exacerbate tensions between Senate and House Republicans that intensified after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. That change left the House more conservative than the Senate, and has caused the two bodies to differ in their approaches even to traditional GOP priorities such as tax cuts.

Nevertheless, analysts doubt that the impeachment divide will have a lasting impact on the ability of the GOP-led Congress to legislate. The main legislative obstacle, they say, will not be opposition from within the GOP but rather from the White House.

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