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Senate Should Heed Constitution, Not Polls

        Senators Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) apparently spent the holidays trying to figure out how to let Bill Clinton off the hook, keep their colleagues from being forced to review the unseemly facts that led the House to impeach him, and protect themselves from having to cast a politically risky vote. 

        Minority Leader Daschle's motives are clear. He wants to protect his president and the leader of his party. He and his colleagues can chortle all they want on television about the predicament in which the GOP finds itself, but they're the ones united in wanting to "get on with the nation's business". They want to quit while they're ahead because things could easily turn on them.

        Majority Leader Lott's motives are not nearly as clear. It's true that many of his GOP colleagues want to be spared having to screw up their courage and actually cast a risky vote without knowing exactly how it might play back home, but there has to be more to it.

        Lott is a good man who hates to lose. He knows that, as things stand today, his side will lose on the vote to convict Clinton of the crimes with which he has been charged. The idea that enough Democrats to make a difference will put their duty under the Constitution abovve their partisan interests is absurd on its face. A few of them might, but most will hold firm-convinced that, as long as Clinton's poll numbers hold up, everything will be fine.

        And Lott knows that the president will hail a failure by the Senate to convict as the moral equivalent of a vote of confidence and an acquittal. He will break open the champagne and, like O.J. Simpson and countless others who have cheated justice, argue that he has been vindicated.

        That's an end game Lott understandably seeks to avoid. He's looking for a way out and, perhaps, a way to turn the whole thing into a victory for his forces. The problem is that in doing so, he has flirted with alternatives that could destroy his own reputation within his party and set off an internecine war that could easily cost the GOP control of Congress.

        A simple censure resolution, for example, would, for reasons both legal and political, give Clinton an opportunity to claim victory and portray its adoption as a repudiation fo the House's vote on impeachment. That must not be allowed.

        The fact is that it was the GOP that acted honorably in the House. The Republicans did their jobs despite the polls. Some, like California's Tom Campbell, held out to the end, but finally found the evidence before them so persuasive as to preclude anything other than a yea vote on impeachment. The courage they demonstrated must not be diminished by a cowardly Senate.

        When I sat down to write this column, I thought there might be a way to craft a censure resolution that would satisfy Republicans, make clear to the American people that Clinton did what he's been accused of and avoid the agony of a long trial. Well, there isn't. Some have suggested that a censure resolution with real teeth might do the job. It won't. A fine reduces perjury and obstruction of justice from their arguable status as "high crimes and misdemeanors" to that of mere parking tickets.

        The time has come for the Senate to forget about the polls and the press, ignore the fears that so often lead to inaction and simply do what the Constitution requires. That means it must try Clinton on the charges voted in the articles of impeachment adopted by the House. To do anything else would be to toy with the Constitution every member of the Senate swore to uphold and establish precedents that could lead us into real trouble at some future date simply to avoid doing anything that might entail risk today.

         It may be and, indeed, probably is true that once the evidence is in, the Senate won t be able to muster the votes to convict. It may also be that the White House will then claim victory.

        But the Senate will have done its job.

        What Lott and his colleagues don t seem to understand is that history often renders judgments far different from those one gets from pollsters. Sometimes the apparent winners of today become losers tomorrow or next year. Sometimes, in fact, what appears to be politically expedient a year or two before an election can look like cowardice and neglect on Election Day.

        Instead of reaching like addicts for yet another poll, the Senate ought to spend a little time examining the evidence that led the House to send them the whole matter and contemplate not only whether Clinton is guilty of the charges brought against him, but whether he is fit, constitutionally or otherwise, to remain in office.

        Perhaps before their final vote, they will give some thought to former White House press spokesman Mike McCurry s response to a BBC reporter who asked him the other day if he thinks his former boss is fit to be president. "I have enormous doubts," replied McCurry.

        And so should the Senate.

David A. Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Washington governmental affairs consultant.


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