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Stuck in the Middle

Michael J. Ring

For an event billed as an exceptional historical drama, the imminent conclusion of the first presidential trial in 130 years will be anything but climactic.

For all the sound and the fury sur-rounding impeach-ment, the inquisition into the life of William Jefferson Clinton will end with a whimper. Most Republicans will favor removal; most if not all Democrats will oppose removal, and President Clinton will hobble along in the White House until the 20th of January, 2001.

But the vote will not be this easy for some members of the Senate. In fact, three Republican senators from New England up for reelection in 2000 will face the vote of their career. These three senators, all moderate Republicans representing states in which Clinton is highly popular, may have to decide between their conscience and their political future.

John Chafee of Rhode Island, James Jeffords of Vermont, and Olympia Snowe of Maine all sport moderate credentials and support social tolerance, a philosophy endearing to many in New England but in opposition to much of the national Republican Party. They have earned well-deserved respect for their work on education, labor, and environmental issues. All three, however, have placed those credentials in serious jeopardy by refusing to vote for the trial's dismissal. Already the vultures are circling, ready to dive in should any of this troika decide that Bill Clinton's transgressions warrant removal from office.

Chafee, one of the senior statesmen of the Senate, is the patriarch of one of Rhode Island's most prominent political families. He, unlike many Republicans, is an aggressive supporter of environmental protection, especially concerned with saving our coastal waters such as Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. In 1994 he won 64 percent of the vote in a heavily Democratic state, and his favorability remains in the 60s in most polls.

But Clinton's Ocean State ratings are in the 70s, and many voters will be scrutinizing Chafee's upcoming decision. Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy has already fired several shots across Chafee's bow. While Kennedy won't run against Chafee in 2000, other potential Democratic candidates are emboldened because of Chafee's dilemma.

Senator Olympia Snowe was propelled to victory in the Republican tidal wave of 1994. Since then, she has staked territory at the center of the political spectrum and has earned a reputation for a willingness to compromise.

In this spirit Snowe has been an ardent proponent of a "finding of fact" resolution, by which the Senate would separate votes of guilt and punishment. Under this scenario, the Senate could vote to find Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice, but decline to remove the president from office. This plan is perfect for senators like Snowe and Chafee, under pressure from the Republican leadership (and perhaps their own consciences) to find Clinton guilty of these crimes, but also deathly afraid of the wrath of an electorate that has stood by Bill Clinton.

This plan, however, has a fatal flaw the absence of a constitutional precedent. It is constitutionally deficient, abdicating the Senate's responsibility for an up-or-down vote on guilt or innocence on these charges. Momentum on Capitol Hill is building against the proposal, and Snowe will be left with the same unpalatable choice as Chafee.

However, none of the three has as much at stake than Vermont's James Jeffords. Arguably the most liberal member of the Republican caucus, in 1994 he squeaked by with only 50 percent of the vote in the Republicans' best year in over half a century. Jeffords may be facing challenges from prominent Vermont State House Democrats or even Independent RepresentativeBernard Sanders.

While this trio sided earlier with the Republican leadership in voting against dismissal and for depositions, the behavior of these senators may be turning as we enter the final stages of the impeachment trial. All three broke with the Republican leadership in voting against live testimony, limiting the House managers' case to the videotaped depositions. Jeffords joined the Democrats in voting for another procedural motion pushed by the White House counsel regarding the depositions. I doubt all three will vote for conviction; Jeffords seems an especially likely candidate to break with party ranks and vote against removal.

I strongly hope that these three senators vote their consciences, be they for conviction or acquittal, as the impeachment trial comes to the close. All three are in very precarious positions, facing tugs from both the electorate and the Republican leadership. But in the republican system of government, representatives must be able to vote for their true, personal opinion. On such a weighty matter senators should not be pandering to special interests and constituencies.

Senators Chafee, Snowe, and Jeffords have been voices of moderation in a right-wing Congress, a group of consensus-builders that can cross party lines to accomplish legislative goals. They are strong and passionate representatives for their respective states. One can only hope voters in their home states realize and appreciate their honesty and courage should any of the three feel compelled to convict and not turn out three of the Senate's most important members.

Michael J. Ring's column appears each Tuesday.