WASHINGTON -- Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee just wanted to be there.
No longer does the Texas Democrat command a national spotlight as she attacks the Republican case for impeaching President Clinton. No longer does she have any official say in Clinton's fate. Nevertheless, Jackson-Lee, a dissenting member of the Judiciary Committee that recommended impeachment and one of Clinton's most fervent House supporters, hasn't missed a second of the prosecutors' case.
Sitting alone in an otherwise empty row of leather seats, in a rear corner behind the Democrats in the Senate chamber, the congresswoman has watched, listened and vigorously taken notes as her colleagues from the House have laid out their case. Except for the 13 Republican prosecutors, she is the only House member who has been sitting in the Senate chamber throughout the trial.
"I wanted to see this process," she explained yesterday in an interview. "I'd like to be a truth-teller to my constituents and to anyone else who asks and might want to understand this process."
Having examined the evidence during her committee's hearings, Jackson-Lee said, she is keenly interested in seeing up close the resolution of the charges. Save for some new spin on the facts, Jackson-Lee contended, nothing new has surfaced in the prosecutors' case.
"I can determine, do they have new evidence?" she said. "Are they giving us something new? No one likes to second-guess themselves. But you always have the question if you're a healthy human being in the back of your mind about what you did. I wanted to be sure as I listened that we had not missed something."
But when pressed, Jackson-Lee acknowledges that her presence in the Senate chamber is important for other reasons. It sends a message, she said, on behalf of the Democratic members of the House who opposed impeachment: We're still listening.
"Let me give you these numbers," she said, brandishing tallies from the Dec. 19 House vote to approve two articles of impeachment, and waving them through the air to make the point.
"On Article 1, 228 to 206. That's very close, by only 22 people. I mean, that's a lot of people left out of the loop. They have no voice. We are missing the House opponents."
Her presence is notable, too, because of the lack of African-American faces on the Senate floor. Blacks, including Jackson-Lee, have provided one of the president's strongest bases of support during his impeachment ordeal. There are no African-Americans in the Senate and none on the House prosecution team.
"I wasn't there to create a visual," said Jackson-Lee, whose district includes Houston. "I hope, however, that the African-American community, the immigrant community and the majority community will see me as a face of reason who understands that this country has a policy-maker at the helm who reflects so many different ideas and views they believe in."
Along the halls of the Cannon House Office Building yesterday, mail accumulated in front of many office doors. Most House members are still in their districts and plan to return for Clinton's State of the Union address Tuesday.
Jackson-Lee's office, by contrast, was buzzing, with her staff joking about how the boss had forced them in on a weekend.
If the trial drags on, and her duties in the House call, Jackson-Lee said, she may have to miss some of the proceedings. For now, she plans a return to her lonely leather seat Tuesday, when Clinton's defense team begins its case.
"Maybe I can be the one reminder that it's OK to support the nonremoval of this president," she said.
Pub Date: 1/17/99