WASHINGTON -- For weeks, the feverish guessing game had focused on whether a swing group of as many as a half-dozen Republican senators might buck their colleagues and side with Democrats in trying to end or truncate the impeachment trial against President Clinton.
But when it came time for those pivotal votes yesterday, only one politician broke party ranks, and that maverick turned out to be a Democrat, Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.
Like all of his Republican colleagues but none of his fellow Democrats, Feingold, one of the Senate's most earnest and independent thinkers, opposed a motion to dismiss charges against Clinton and supported a motion to take depositions from three witnesses.
He said votes to the contrary would have been an assertion that there was no possible way for the House trial managers to persuade senators that Clinton should be removed from office, and he had not reached that certainty.
But Feingold was careful to add in a statement released by his staff that his votes should not be interpreted as signals that he favors convicting Clinton.
"I have not reached a decision on that question," he said. "It is my inclination, however, to demand a very high standard of proof on this question."
Some Democrats said they respected his independence.
"Russ is an original thinker who really grapples with the issues," said Charles E. Schumer of New York, "and I know he was grappling with this one right up until the end."
As Richard J. Durbin of Illinois left after the vote, he was overheard telling a companion, "You've got to give Russ Feingold credit."
Feingold's dissent from his party was largely predictable, because he had articulated a stern disapproval of Clinton's actions and hinted at a belief that the second article of impeachment, which charges the president with obstruction of justice, deserved careful consideration.
Moreover, Feingold's political career has been marked by principled stands that flouted conventional wisdom or party unity.
During his campaign for re-election to a second term in the Senate last year, Feingold, a fierce advocate for campaign finance reform, refused to use "soft money" donations even as his Republican opponent outspent him and drew ever closer in the polls.
Feingold was one of the first and only Democrats to call for an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's fund raising activities; he has been equally critical of the president's behavior in relation to the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"If there is any proof that he lied under oath," Feingold said a year ago, "I will have no trouble voting on his impeachment."
Pub Date: 1/28/99