In a Senate trial, odds favor Clinton
By Stuart RothenbergDecember 21, 1998
Web posted at: 11:59 a.m. EST (1659 GMT)
Is there any chance that the Senate will convict President Bill Clinton on the two impeachment charges that were passed by the House of Representatives?
Two weeks ago, few observers gave the House much chance of impeaching the president. But the president's ill-advised apology shortly before traveling to the Middle East and the unanticipated near-unanimity of moderate Republicans in supporting impeachment pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory for Clinton.
The outcome in the House, which was anticipated by few, if any, serious political observers, points out just how difficult it is to predict exactly what will happen in Washington. But supporters of the president's removal from office face a far higher hurdle in the Senate than in the House.
Let's be quite clear about the situation: The numbers in the Senate are intimidating for supporters of conviction, who need a two-thirds majority.
House Republicans were able to impeach the president because they needed only a majority vote and they held a solid 11-seat majority. They merely needed to hold all of their own members to pass any of the articles of impeachment.
That was still, of course, a formidable task given the seriousness of impeachment, but it was not nearly as intimidating as the task facing anti-Clinton forces in the Senate. The Senate in the 106th Congress includes 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Even if all of the Republicans vote for conviction -- hardly a certain outcome -- supporters of conviction would need 12 Democrats to join them.
Which Democrats might be willing to support conviction?
Well, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nebraska's Bob Kerrey were all critical of Clinton, so I suppose they would be at the top of any GOP target list in the Senate.
Many journalists think that West Virginia's Robert Byrd would also be one of the Democrats more inclined to support conviction. Virginia's Chuck Robb faces a tough re-election battle in 2000, so he might have a reason to listen to those wanting to remove the president.
That makes five Democrats who, I suppose, MIGHT vote to convict. But would most of them -- even ANY of them -- be LIKELY to vote to convict Clinton and remove him from office? Clearly not.
But let's move on. Let's assume all five decided to vote against the president. Who's next on the GOP target list?
California's Dianne Feinstein was critical of the president's behavior, so I guess you could add her to the list. But, as you can see, we are already stretching credibility. Many Democrats in the House criticized the president's behavior and explanations but weren't ready to vote for impeachment. Feinstein already sounds as if she thinks impeachment was crazy.
Southern Democrats, generally more conservative than their northern colleagues have traditionally been more sympathetic to Republican causes, but the current crop of southerners (other than the already mentioned Robb) doesn't seem to offer opportunities for supporters of conviction.
Louisiana's John Breaux, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln, and North Carolina's John Edwards are, in one way or the other, close enough to the president or indebted enough to Clinton to make a vote for conviction extremely unlikely. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida and Max Cleland of Georgia are left. Again, not all that promising for those who'd like to see a conviction.
The Republicans would need at least a dozen Democratic senators -- more than a quarter of all of the Democrats in that body. That would have amounted to 55 Democrats in the House -- eleven times more than the actual number of House Democrats who backed the first article of impeachment.
GOP moderates in the Senate might do what their House counterparts did -- join with their more conservative colleagues to support the president's ouster. But John Chafee (RI), Olympia Snowe (ME), Susan Collins (ME) and Jim Jeffords (VT), just to mention a few, certainly aren't sure votes for conviction.
Could a momentum develop in the Senate the way it did in the House? Sure. And a trial could, at least in theory, both uncover more evidence to be used against the president and change public opinion. But is that likely? The answer, again, is pretty obvious.
So the odds once again favor the president. A conviction in the Senate seems remote. A censure would likely pass. But if Clinton regards that as a victory, he doesn't have much of a sense of history.
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