WASHINGTON -- Ending a tumultuous year of political scandal, the Senate acquitted President Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors yesterday, after House prosecutors failed to muster even a bare majority of senators in favor of removing the nation's 42nd president from office.
Five weeks after the Senate convened the second presidential impeachment trial in history, 50 senators voted to convict the president of obstruction of justice -- far short of the 67 votes needed to oust him. Five Republicans -- all of them Northeastern moderates -- joined all 45 Democrats in finding Clinton not guilty of obstruction.
On the other charge, perjury, only 45 senators found Clinton guilty, a startling rebuke to the prosecutors. Ten Republicans, from across the country and the political spectrum, joined a unanimous Democratic caucus in acquitting Clinton of perjury.
The prosecutors had hoped for at least a simple majority on one of the counts as a semblance of vindication of the House impeachment votes, which were cast almost completely along party lines.
But in the Senate, the only party line to crack was Republican. Even some Republican senators who voted to convict acknowledged the symbolic importance of yesterday's tallies.
"Sure, it's significant; the presidentwon," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who voted to convict Clinton on both articles of impeachment. "He would have won if it was just an up-or-down vote."
The president escaped a formal reprimand after Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, moved to block a toughly worded censure motion drafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican.
The censure resolution would have formally tarred Clinton for having "deliberately misled and deceived the American people" and for "impeding" the judicial process.
But some Republicans believed the resolution was designed to give Democrats political cover for their acquittal votes and represented a remedy for presidential misconduct outside the framework of the Constitution.
Under Senate rules, censure proponents needed 67 votes to bring the motion to a vote. They drew 56.
An afternoon bomb scare deprived Democrats of a chance to informally discuss censure on the Senate floor -- and probably to excoriate Clinton's conduct.
But Clinton could hardly claim exoneration from a Senate that was bipartisan in its conclusion that his behavior, if not criminal, was nevertheless deplorable and morally indefensible.
Two hours after his acquittal, the president pleaded for reconciliation in a brief but contrite message to the nation, trying to appear at once remorseful and forward-looking.
"I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people," he said in a Rose Garden statement.
"Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans, here in Washington and throughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together. This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America," he concluded.
As the president turned to go back inside the White House, a reporter asked whether he could forgive and forget. Clinton replied, "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it."
'Senators, how say you?'
The president's acquittal lacked the drama that had preceded his impeachment by the House. For weeks, it has been clear that the prosecutors would never amass the two-thirds majority needed to remove a president for the first time in the nation's history. The only suspense concerned the final tally.
Nevertheless, after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intoned, "Senators, how say you, guilty or not guilty?" the majesty of the moment was inescapable. One lawmaker after another stood in the silent Senate to deliver a verdict, some forcefully, others in barely a whisper.
A half-dozen House Democrats -- including some of the most vocal Clinton defenders -- Reps. Maxine Waters of California and John Lewis of Georgia -- entered the Senate chamber to witness the trial's end.
The 13 House prosecutors, who had relentlessly pressed their case in the face of opinion polls that said Americans opposed Clinton's conviction, sat glumly, especially after the perjury article garnered fewer guilty votes than expected.
Five Republicans -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, James M. Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- voted to acquit on both articles of impeachment. On the perjury count, those five were joined by five other Republicans -- Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington state, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Ted Stevens of Alaska, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and John W. Warner of Virginia.
Specter voted "not proven, therefore not guilty," dashing the hopes of Senate leaders who had believed he would opt to be recorded as voting "present" rather than for acquittal. That, at least, would have given the prosecutors a 50-49 majority on one count.
But the flashes of frustration and bitterness that the prosecutors had shown in recent days largely faded after the votes. Indeed, the lead prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, even suggested that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should not indict Clinton, either while the president is in office or after his term.
Mainly, the House prosecutors seemed as weary of the Lewinsky scandal as seems the rest of the nation.
"I'm ready to go home," said Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee.
Some Democrats could not resist a few partisan jabs, though no one was proclaiming outright victory.
The final tally proved that "this was an illegitimate process from the start," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.
And some Republicans could not hide their disappointment. Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho accused the White House and the Democratic leadership of pressuring its party rank and file to stay in line for acquittal, saying that "the other side saw it as necessary to support their president, and they did."
Few could escape the sense that Bill Clinton, the self-described "Comeback Kid," had pulled off perhaps his greatest escape act yet.
Senators close ranks
But in the aftermath, the famously clubby Senate was at its clubbiest, lacking the partisan acrimony that had marred the House impeachment proceedings. The votes seemed to reveal a deep gulf between the parties, yet senators from both sides declared that the trial's tribulations had brought the senators closer.
"I came out of this with a feeling of boundless faith in these United States senators," said Sen. John Edwards, a freshman North Carolina Democrat who described his colleagues as "100 people who just wanted to do the right thing."
In some sense, that bipartisan senatorial camaraderie was at the expense of one person: William Jefferson Clinton. Half the Senate voted not only to convict Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors and to remove him from office, but also to bar him from ever holding elective office again, a punishment not even considered for President Richard M. Nixon.
"All reasonable observers admit that the president lied under oath and undertook a substantial and purposeful effort to obstruct justice," Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, a senior Republican, said in a statement.
Though most Democrats disagreed with Domenici's legal conclusions, their criticism was just as blistering of Clinton's sexual conduct with a former White House intern and his subsequent efforts to conceal it. Many of them took pains not to casually dismiss the House prosecutors' case.
Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, the only Democrat to vote against a motion to dismiss the charges on Jan. 28, compared Clinton's offenses to those that led to the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and those that led to Nixon's resignation. Johnson's offenses were weak, Feingold said, while Nixon's were overwhelming.
Clinton's, he said, lay in between. "This one is a hard case, and senators may see it either way," Feingold said, concluding that the president had "just barely avoided committing obstruction of justice."
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the case was not frivolous, just "mistaken" and out of proportion to the offenses. Indeed, Clinton's stature seemed almost as diminished in many Democratic eyes as it is in Republican eyes.
Kerry said "the president acted without courage and even without honor" throughout the Lewinsky ordeal, and the senator took pains to distance himself from Clinton the man, saying he would work with Clinton only because he is president.
"There is very significant respect for the office; that respect will continue," Kerry allowed. "He is the president of the United States, and we today made it clear he will remain president of the United States."
White House relief
Still, White House lawyers said they had reason to feel relieved, if not ecstatic. After the House impeachment vote, the White House feared that a groundswell of calls for Clinton's resignation could weaken his hand in the Senate. House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston's surprise resignation was intended to set an example for Clinton and to provide Republicans a club with which to pummel the president.
Instead, according to White House legal aides, it might have had the opposite effect.
"Things had the look of spiraling of control, and if there's one thing the country hates, it's instability," a White House aide said.
The House Democrats' show of solidarity with Clinton after the impeachment vote might have enraged Republicans, but it did show the Senate and the nation that the party was holding together. Then, last month, when Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democratic senator, announced that he would propose a motion to dismiss the charges, the president knew he would survive.
"It was a somber day, really," the aide said. "But there's a sense of relief."
Pub Date: 2/13/99