Maryland senators both voted to acquit; Mikulski, Sarbanes stress seriousness of decision; THE IMPEACHMENT VERDICT


WASHINGTON -- "Not guilty," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said, rising to her feet, her fingers pressed against her desk, as the Senate clerk called out her name. "Not guilty," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes answered a few minutes later, his hands clasped in front of him.

With their votes at President Clinton's impeachment trial yesterday, Maryland's senators helped a fellow Democrat whom they have loyally supported to escape eviction from office with a comfortable margin.

In explaining why they voted to acquit Clinton on both charges, they agreed that the alleged offenses were not serious enough to require Clinton's removal.

Moreover, Mikulski and Sarbanes said during separate interviews yesterday, the House prosecutors had failed to prove their case.

"The contribution that the Founding Fathers made was their concept of the separation of power and the three separate branches of government," Sarbanes said minutes after senators filed out of the chamber.

The nation's voters should be given the right to decide when someone is not fit to hold the office of president, he said.

Otherwise, he said, the American form of democracy would be converted into a parliamentary system, in which a no-confidence vote by the legislature would trigger new elections.

"Obviously, there are extraordinary situations that would require the legislative branch to remove the government," said Sarbanes, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was one of two current senators who served on the House Judiciary Committee that recommended President Richard M. Nixon's impeachment in 1974. "But that's a very grave thing to do."

Mikulski, a former social worker, said she delved into the legal details of the case with lawyers on her staff and came away convinced that the prosecutors had failed to connect the dots in their case.

"I concluded that on both articles the House managers did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president had engaged in these impeachable offenses," Mikulski said. Like Sarbanes and other Democrats, Mikulski stressed that she did not condone Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to conceal it.

"I felt that the president's behavior was shameful, was reckless, was immoral," Mikulski said.

She rejected Republican charges that Democrats -- none of whom voted to convict Clinton on either count -- were unified by politics rather than law.

"I had to literally discipline myself to suspend my relationship with the president, to make sure I would render a decision that was impartial," Mikulski said. "This wasn't an agenda item. It was impeachable allegations."

The two senators, close political allies, took on different tasks during the trial. Mikulski said she did not confer with other senators about the substance of the case, although she did consult Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, her Senate mentor, on the trial's procedures.

She was also forced to miss some of the proceedings in mid-January with an ailment that required gallbladder surgery.

Because of his role during the Watergate hearings, Sarbanes was appointed to an ad-hoc group of eight Democrats by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota to advise him on procedures as the trial progressed.

"Senator Sarbanes has obviously been invaluable. He's the sea legs of the caucus," said Joel Johnson, Daschle's chief of staff.

"Senator Daschle felt that Senator Sarbanes was just an anchor during the whole process."

Each Marylander played a brief ceremonial role for the trial's start and conclusion: Mikulski was one of six senators to accompany Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist into the Senate chamber, and Sarbanes was one of six senators to escort Rehnquist out yesterday after Clinton's acquittal.

Mikulski allowed herself a small smile at the close of the interview, as she walked out of a conference room in her Senate office, and she repeated the words: "Not guilty."

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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