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Maryland's senators differ on opening debate to public; Sarbanes votes to close discussion of dismissal


WASHINGTON -- Although they are both strong political supporters of President Clinton, Maryland's two Democratic senators split sharply yesterday on whether the Senate should open the doors during its debate on a motion to dismiss the impeachment charges.

The full Senate rarely meets in private, but the arcane rules guiding an impeachment trial require a two-thirds majority vote to allow the public to hear its debate on the motion for dismissal made by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a Democrat.

Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes was one of just five Democrats to vote against the unsuccessful measure of fellow Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota to open the debate, which stretched well into the evening.

Sarbanes spokesman Jesse Jacobs said of his boss: "His vote was consistent with his views and his role in this impeachment process."

Sarbanes has resisted offering much reaction to the charges against Clinton, and he has largely limited his comments to critical remarks about the process followed by House Republicans in impeaching the president.

Along with most of her Democratic colleagues, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski backed the Harkin measure.

"In our deliberations, my colleagues and I will contemplate no less than reversing the outcome of an election in which nearly 100 million Americans cast their vote," Mikulski said in a written statement last night.

"Such a significant decision, a decision with such profound consequences, should not be reached behind closed doors," the Mikulski statement said. "I believe my constituents and all Americans deserve to hear Senate deliberations from senators -- not leakers and speculators and commentators."

Earlier this month, Sarbanes strongly supported the move by Senate leaders to hold an informal caucus of the Senate, also behind closed doors, to set a rough procedure for the trial on a bipartisan basis. Senators hailed that agreement -- which threatened to fall apart last weekend over the issue of witnesses -- as a model of decorum and comity.

During the debate, Sarbanes suggested that the prosecution and defense should be allowed either no witnesses or an unlimited number of them, and his colleagues agreed to defer the question until later.

He later said the closed-door debate afforded senators the chance to speak more freely on issues with potential political pitfalls.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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