Open or closed? The politics of the final debate
By Stuart Rothenberg
February 8, 1999
WASHINGTON (February 8) -- The handwriting has been on the wall for weeks, even months. The Senate will not remove President Bill Clinton from office.
Whether you think that the president lied to the grand jury and obstructed justice and should be removed, or place most of the blame on Ken Starr and the Republicans, it's been very clear for a while that 12 Democrats won't vote to convict Clinton.
Other than the question of censure, that leaves just one loose end: whether the Senate should open its final deliberations to the public. So far, deliberations have been closed, and the Senate would have to change its rules by a two-thirds vote to open them to the public.
The members of the national media generally favor an open debate. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper for which I also write, has editorialized more than once on the matter. "Final debate on the articles of impeachment should be conducted where the nation can watch it, where it can be recorded for history, where citizens can judge their elected representatives in action," editorialized the newspaper on February 1.
In arguing a week later that the closed-door tradition is "an anachronism," the paper editorialized that the senators' "constituents deserve, after all, to understand why they voted as they did in this crucial question."
These arguments reflect the views of Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who have been pushing for a rules change for weeks and argue that something as serious as the debate on the removal of the president of the United States shouldn't be conducted behind closed doors.
More than a handful of Republican senators, including Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, seem to feel the same way.
But many Republicans counter that all impeachment debates since President Andrew Johnson's (and like jury deliberations) have been conducted in closed session, without reporters or TV cameras intruding. They counter that the final vote will, of course, be in public, but media coverage of the actual deliberations runs counter to precedent and the recently revised rules.
Fundamentally, however, the Republicans are concerned about Democratic grandstanding in the final debate, and it is difficult to dismiss that concern.
GOP senators can read the polls, and they are fearful that the Democrats will blast the House managers, attack the charges as politically based, and generally try to discredit the Republicans. If you've watched Sen. Harkin over the past few weeks, it's hard to believe that he will do anything else.
Let's face it, anytime that red light on a camera goes on, it affects the way senators talk and act. By televising the final deliberations and allowing reporters to cover the debate, the senators would end up playing to the media and the American public, not merely stating their views or talking to each other.
It's not as if Americans won't know how each senator justified his or her vote. You can bet every senator will release a statement, and every senator who wants to appear on TV to explain his or her reasoning probably will have the opportunity.
But while the GOP fears are both real and justified, it's hard to dismiss the argument that a debate this historic should be conducted behind closed doors.
In the end, much of the debate over the final debate boils down to politics. And for both Democrats and Republicans, that's not necessarily surprising.
Monday, February 8, 1999
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