WASHINGTON -- For a moment it seemed as if Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski had joined the other side.
During a roll call on whether to dismiss impeachment charges against President Clinton, the Maryland Democrat prompted gasps in the gallery when she voted with Republicans and against the motion that had been offered by her Senate mentor, West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd.
After an exchange of glances with Byrd, she quickly rose and changed her vote, saying, "I made an error -- I vote yes."
Turning to Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, she rubbed her brow in embarrassment and said, "That shows you how sick I am."
Mikulski had returned to the Senate yesterday after checking into Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore on Tuesday with flu-like symptoms. Her ailment was diagnosed yesterday as a gallbladder infection. She is expected to undergo surgery in the next 10 days that will require an overnight hospital stay, her spokeswoman, Mona Miller, said.
"She is looking for a way to ensure that she can both be careful for her health and see that she can attend the trial," Miller said.
Hours before Mikulski's errant vote, a key Senate Republican had accused her of inconsistency in opposing witnesses during Clinton's trial after demanding public testimony in 1995 when a senior GOP senator was under fire.
When the Ethics Committee, which included Mikulski, was investigating Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood in 1995 for sexual misconduct and alleged obstruction of its probe, Mikulski demanded to hear witnesses in public even though extensive evidence had been collected behind closed doors, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
"We had 264 witnesses, took 111 sworn depositions, issued 44 subpoenas, 16,000 pages of documents, spent a thousand hours in meetings," said McConnell, who was chairman of the committee.
Describing Mikulski as "my good friend -- very good friend actually," McConnell quoted her as arguing in 1995 for "public hearings for cross-examination of witnesses to resolve discrepancies in testimony."
Along with Mikulski, McConnell cited four other Senate Democrats who favored public hearings on Packwood: Barbara Boxer of California, Richard H. Bryant of Nevada, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts.
All five voted yesterday to dismiss the charges against Clinton and against a successful Republican motion to allow House prosecutors to call three witnesses. They argued that the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the repeated testimony before a grand jury and in depositions in the Clinton case provide enough evidence to judge the worth of the accusations.
"When the accused was a Republican -- in fact, a senior member of our party, the chairman of the Finance Committee -- my colleagues were making exactly the opposite argument," said McConnell, who was chairman of the Ethics Committee during the Packwood probe.
All but one Democrat opposed yesterday's motion.
The Democratic effort to have public hearings on Packwood was defeated. In September 1995, the Ethics Committee recommended that Packwood be expelled; instead, he resigned the next day.
Miller, Mikulski's spokeswoman, said the Packwood allegations and the Clinton case are not comparable.
"I think you had a pretty significant difference between no record in [the Packwood] case and 60,000 pages in this one," Miller said. "In the Packwood case, you had witnesses who were seeking to testify and share their experiences. All the witnesses in this [Clinton] case have testified repeatedly."
Mikulski was not available for comment after the votes yesterday. But her office released statements in her name explaining her vote to dismiss the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice and her vote against calling witnesses.
"Senators should and must use the highest standard of proof if we are considering the removal of a twice-elected President of the United States," Mikulski wrote. "The House managers' case is not firm and it is not clear. It doesn't meet the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt."
Calling witnesses, she said, will not substantially clarify any key points under dispute. "There are no substantial differences among witnesses about any key evidence," Mikulski wrote. The differences we are discussing in this trial are, instead, about interpretation."
Sun staff writer Paul West contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/28/99