WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, a veteran of the Watergate impeachment hearings, is among a small group of senior Democrats who are quietly grappling with how best -- or whether -- to proceed with the expected Senate trial of President Clinton.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota this week sought the counsel of Sarbanes, in addition to that of Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, an influential lawmaker who has questioned the need for a Senate trial against Clinton; Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, a Daschle friend among party leaders; and Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, the head of a Democratic political action committee that raises money for the party's Senate candidates, Democratic Senate aides said.
Some leading Democrats, including Dorgan, have questioned whether a trial is necessary. But the discussions have not been widely publicized, a decision bred of the Senate Democrats' TC desire to avoid the appearance they are seeking to short-circuit a Senate trial that would determine whether Clinton should be removed from office.
Sarbanes, 65, has consistently avoided talking about the substance of the charges against Clinton. But the Maryland Democrat has criticized the Republican-run House Judiciary Committee for what he said was its highly partisan process and tone. Sarbanes is also expected to appear with Clinton today in Baltimore at an event on homelessness.
Sarbanes' spokesman, Jesse Jacobs, declined to comment yesterday beyond acknowledging a conversation this week between Daschle and Sarbanes about the possible Clinton trial. Senate Democrats hope to avoid the high-decibel partisanship of the House impeachment proceedings and to gain a bipartisan agreement on censure, an outcome that would be anathema to some conservatives.
"How do we get through this in a way that preserves the dignity of the institution and still do the job we're constitutionally charged with?" asked one Senate Democratic aide. "That's the question."
Daschle's interest in Sarbanes' perspective stems from the Marylander's experience a generation ago on the House Judiciary Committee, which approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.
In August 1974, Sarbanes, then a junior congressman from Baltimore, was selected by House Democrats to introduce the first article of impeachment against Nixon -- for obstruction of justice.
The final draft of the impeachment count, which incorporated the views of Republican committee members, became known as the "Sarbanes substitute," though he was not its sole author.
"Paul's bright, and he's cerebral," said former Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan of Prince George's County, a Republican who served with him on the Judiciary Committee in 1974. "He's not flashy, and I say that as a compliment. He's a man of substance."
One former aide rejected the notion that Sarbanes, a traditional liberal Democrat, would defend the more moderate Clinton on ideological grounds.
"He is not partisan for the sake of being partisan," said Kalman R. Hettleman, a Baltimore lawyer who was an assistant to Sarbanes during the Watergate hearings. "Certainly, he's taken on Clinton on many other things, from appointments to economic policy."
Pub Date: 12/23/98