Can the United States Senate Rise to the Occasion? Probably Not.
At the outset of the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, all 100 senators met in the historic old Senate chamber where Webster, Clay and Calhoun, the Senate’s “immortal trio,” established the standards of Senate oratory and deliberation.
The Senate’s then-elder statesman, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) rose and dramatically and somberly addressed his colleagues: “The White House has sullied itself. The House has fallen into a black pit of partisanship and self-indulgence. The Senate is teetering on the brink of that same black pit."
The Senate — as it so often in its history has — rose to the occasion. Led by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate adopted a binding resolution drafted by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) laying out a bipartisan framework establishing procedures for the fair, deliberative and dignified conduct of the impeachment trial. So bipartisan, in fact, that it was adopted by a 100-0 vote.
There was plenty of partisan rancor during the roughly five-week trial, but the spirit of bipartisanship nonetheless governed the conduct of the trial. The trial acquitted the Democratic president. However, Republican Majority Leader Lott, in his memoir, “Herding Cats,” nonetheless warmly describes the final moments of the trial. He relates that Minority Leader Daschle “gestured toward me with his right hand and said, ‘Perhaps more than anyone in this chamber, I can attest to the steadfast commitment to a trial conducted with dignity and in the national interest. He has demonstrated that differences — honest differences — on difficult issues need not be dissent and that in the end the Senate can transcend those differences and conclude a constitutional process the country will respect, and I do.’” Lott added, “I could have said the same of him [Daschle}.”
The final vote, itself, was bipartisan. Ten Republicans voted to acquit Clinton on the first article of impeachment which charged perjury and five Republicans voted not guilty on the obstruction of justice article.
Today the Senate teeters on the edge of that black pit once again.
Can the highly polarized and poisonously political current Senate show such higher purpose? It seems unlikely.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already blatantly declared, “I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers.” He brags, “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.”
The president challenges the legitimacy of the impeachment itself. He calls it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Many Senate Republicans have already adopted this posture. Months ago, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chief Trump apologist, Sen. Lindsay Graham(R-S.C.) had already declared the impeachment "un-American at its core" and “illegitimate on its face” before he even saw the evidence and the articles of impeachment. To his lasting shame, he seconded President Trump’s offensive characterization of the House impeachment investigation as a "lynching."
What are we to think of a trial in which judges and jurors (senators) are coordinating with the defense team and the accused? It would seem such senators are compromised and, in this way, are violating their special oath required under Senate impeachment rules to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” How can a senator “taking [his] cues from the president’s lawyers” possibly “do impartial justice?”
Alexander Hamilton expressed the aspiration which the framers held for the Senate when he asked in Federalist No. 65, “Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused and the representatives of the people, his accusers?”
I worked for more than three decades in the Senate. It is an institution which I love and admire. Although I worked for three Democratic senators, I have known many Republican senators who have placed the Constitution and the nation above political party. Some still remain in the body. Perhaps they will finally stand up.
I do not presume to tell senators how they should vote, but I am profoundly saddened by those who will not stand up for a fair, deliberative, and dignified process and will not defend the Congress. Can they not defend it at least by seriously and judiciously weighing the disrespect this president has shown to the process, to the institution, and to the Constitution? The lions of the Senate of the past of both parties would never have done less.
Sen. Byrd at the end of the Clinton trial cautioned “Let there be no preening and posturing and gloating on the White House lawn this time when the voting is over and done. The House of Representatives has already inflicted upon the president the greatest censure, the greatest condemnation, that the House can inflict upon any president. And it is called impeachment!”
He continued, “That was an indelible judgment which can never be withdrawn. It will run throughout the pages of history and its deep stain can never be eradicated from the eyes and memories of man. God can forgive us all, but history may not.”
Some Republican senators may dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump lightly. History will not.
Richard A. Arenberg is a visiting professor at Brown University and a former senior aide to Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) for 34 years. He is the author of the award-winning "Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress" and co-author of “Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate.” You can follow him on Twitter @richarenberg