Senate rejects proposal for open impeachment deliberations

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted yesterday to reject a call by two senators to open to the public its deliberations in the impeachment trial of President Clinton. As a result, all Senate debate in the trial will take place behind closed doors.

Press groups criticized the result, saying the public deserved to hear what
elected officials say as they debate Clinton's removal from office.

Supporters of closed sessions say members will feel freer to express
opinions in private, and that public hearings might encourage their
colleagues to make comments aimed at the public, thus prolonging the trial.

Senate rules in place since the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew
Johnson say impeachment trial deliberations must take place in “closed”
session. Sen. Paul Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.,
proposed waiving those rules.

The Harkin-Wellstone motion — supported by a number of media
organizations — failed to pass on a 43-57 vote, largely along party
lines and 24 votes short of the two-thirds tally (67) needed to change the
rule. Fifty-two Republicans and five Democrats favored closed debate; three
Republicans and 40 Democrats voted to waive the rule and open the sessions.

“It's a shame the public's not invited,” Harkin said after the vote.
“Closing the doors is an affront to every taxpayer. We're not dealing with
national security; we're dealing with removing a president.”

Recent editorials in The New York Times and the Los Angeles
sought to have the Senate open the debate. A number of press
organizations and others made appeals to Senate leaders in favor of the
Harkin-Wellstone motion.

Today, in interviews Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said in a statement: “RTNDA is very disappointed that the Senate declined to open deliberations in the President's impeachment trial, especially since the story has played out so extensively in the public until now. We are appreciative of the fact that a substantial number of senators voted to keep the process open, but unfortunately it was not enough.”

  • Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom
    of the Press, said, “What can I say? There's no legal recourse. As they keep
    reminding us, they can do anything they want. I think the only recourse is
    that we as citizens — not just the press or as journalists — tell
    our representatives we don't approve of this. This is not really a (media)
    issue. It's the elected representatives being nonresponsive to the wishes of
    their constituency. I can't help but think that somewhere down the line
    there's going to be a backlash on this. … [The vote is] appalling. I
    understand their reasons [for keeping sessions closed], but it's the same,
    old, tired reasons.”

  • Joel Campbell of the Salt Lake City Deseret News in Utah, who is
    national chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee,
    called the vote “an outrage. And it really surprises and disappoints me that
    there's no sense of outrage among the public. It seems to me they're saying,
    'So what?' That really concerns me. One of the leading bodies in our
    government is going into secret session on a major issue for this nation and
    there's a real lack of outrage. I don't hear much objection, even among our
    fellow journalists. Perhaps we need to do a better job of informing the
    public. These things ought to be open.”

    Harkin, in a recent interview on CNN's “Burden of Proof,” said, “I really
    believe at the end of this, we have to have closure (final resolution of the
    scandal). If you close the doors, you will have 100 versions of what went
    on … and the public will be rightfully confused.”

    But Harkin's colleague, Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., disagreed at that time,
    saying that the discussions were likely to be “much more candid and I
    believe more helpful” if the Senate conducted its business away from TV
    cameras and the pad-and-pencil press. Chafee voted yesterday against the
    Harkin-Wellstone motion.

    There is one place where historians may be able, someday, to review comments
    by senators during the trial deliberations. The Washington Post
    reported today that a confidential transcription of those debates was being
    made, according to Senate Historian Richard Baker. It was not clear,
    however, if or when that transcript might become public.