WASHINGTON -- Behind all the pomp and circumstance in the Senate, the impeachment of President Clinton is inevitably a partisan exercise. The question is whether it will set a precedent that other congressional majorities seize upon in the future -- or one that backfires so loudly that they will fear using the procedure except in those most extreme circumstances for which it was intended.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has been saying and doing the right things to project a picture of himself and the Republican Party as proceeding judiciously and reluctantly to bring Mr. Clinton to trial. And, at least to a degree, that perception is probably an accurate one.
At the very least, the Senate Republicans seem determined to avoid the kind of image their colleagues in the House earned by running roughshod over the Democrats on every occasion both in the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor. That show of muscle was most obvious in the Republicans' absolute refusal to even allow a vote on a resolution to censure Mr. Clinton.
Indeed, the partisanship there has made many Senate Democrats extremely touchy about Mr. Lott's apparent solicitude about the concerns of Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, who's now cast as the chief prosecutor in the Senate trial. "Henry Hyde is a fine human being, but I don't give a damn about what he thinks we should do," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat.
In the long run there is no way to keep this whole process from being partisan and being seen as such. Although there may be a few defections from party lines in the end, as there were on the final impeachment vote in the House, it is already clear that this is a partisan matter.
No one imagines that if the Democrats controlled Congress, the Democratic president would be standing accused of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and threatened with removal from office.
What this means in the long term probably depends on the behavior of the extremists on each side, meaning the senators representing the religious right on the one hand and the White House on the other. Will these most zealous Republicans make a point of dragging out every grubby detail of Mr. Clinton's behavior for fresh examination on the Senate floor? Will the White House challenge the legitimacy of the process?
Retribution is also an important element of politics and there is some of that here, too. There are Republicans in Congress who see the impeachment as a way to pay back the Democrats for their treatment in years past of two conservative nominees for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas, and for the punishment of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. There are even a few still muttering about Richard M. Nixon and Watergate.
So it is not far-fetched to see a time when Democrats would feel politically tempted and justified in using the impeachment process to pursue a Republican president. Moreover, they would feel free to write their own definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense.
The critical element of this equation, however, is the attitude of the public. The election returns Nov. 3 and dozens of opinion surveys have made it clear that the American people are dismayed and alienated by the GOP-controlled Congress. They see the House action as a partisan attack on a president on an issue on which he does not deserve removal from office.
The Senate Republicans insist, like their House colleagues, that they cannot govern by taking a new opinion poll every day. But if that is true, it is equally true that politicians in the Senate and elsewhere know there are risks in ignoring public opinion.
The bottom line is that although this trial is inevitably a partisan proceeding, the Republicans have an important stake in trying to minimize the level of bitterness and acrimony. The voters are watching.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 1/08/99