It is tempting to make the uncompromising adherents of a full Senate impeachment trial (complete with evidentiary witnesses) live with the consequences of their “constitutional imperative.” There’s no telling how low the public’s esteem for the majority party in Congress or for the national media might sink.
But prudence dictates support for the efforts now underway to find some expeditious and responsible way of bringing down the curtain on our national soap opera.
For many months, the public has signaled its representatives in Washington to find an appropriate punishment for President Clinton’s misbehavior (meaning censure and potential criminal liability after he leaves office, not resignation or removal from office) and then turn the attention of the policymaking community back to matters that affect their lives.
Sadly, the common sense of the American people has been spurned every step of the way—from independent counsel Ken Starr’s aggressive advocacy for impeachment to the strong-armed tactics of the Republican leadership to deny a House floor vote on a censure alternative.
Now the Senate has within its power to do what the House should have done at the outset of its deliberations: make the threshold decision of whether the charges leveled against the president, assuming they are true, rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Given the mass of materials presented by the independent counsel to the Congress and subsequently released on the Internet, there is sufficient information in the public domain to make that determination.
Direct testimony in the Senate by Monica Lewinsky, Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan and others may be essential to resolving disputed facts in the case, but would become relevant only if two-thirds or more of the Senate entertained the possibility of voting to convict the president.
Such testimony is surely not needed by the Senate to fashion an appropriate censure resolution. After all, the House was willing to impeach the president on the basis of this information alone, without hearing the testimony of a single witness to the behavior under review.
As Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the estimable authority on the institution, has made clear, the Senate has ample leeway, within the Constitution and its own rules, to conduct as long or as short a trial as it deems appropriate. It can terminate the trial at any point a majority wishes, and it can take action short of conviction to express its disapproval of the President’s behavior.
The effort by Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.—encouraged by their leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D.—to find a way within the framework of a Senate trial to avoid unseemly and unnecessary public testimony is sensible and constructive.
It suggests some grownups might materialize in Washington after all.