‘Republicans didn't relent’

‘Republicans didn't relent’

Senator Ted Kennedy's chief legislative assistant recalls "partisan politics at its ugliest" during the Clinton impeachment hearings

Carey Parker, chief legislative assistant for Senator Ted Kennedy, spoke with the Miller Center's oral history team to recall the maneuvering in Congress during President Clinton's impeachment hearings. Here is an excerpt from those conversations.

Q: Talk about [Senator Ted Kennedy’s] role in the Clinton impeachment and Senate trial. That was, I guess, the big event of Clinton’s second term.... I don’t think a complete picture has been painted about where he was on this when it was building in the House, or about his very important role, as I understand it, in setting up the terms. It was a tricky thing, and I understand that he and Senator [Phil] Gramm made a deal.

Parker: The partisan lines were drawn very quickly as the process began. I think Senator Kennedy felt strongly from the beginning that it was an unjustified move by the Republican Congress. His hope was that they would be able to defeat it on the House floor. Once it became so highly partisan, however, it seemed clear that the House could pass the impeachment resolution, because it required only a majority vote, and Republicans had majority of seats in the House. Then they’d send the impeachment resolution to the Senate for the trial, and it would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove him from office. 

The Senator’s feeling from the beginning was that the resolution would get through the House, but it would never pass the Senate. We wanted to be sure, however, that our Senate Democratic colleagues agreed with us. Senator Kennedy talked to a number of outside legal experts, and everyone he talked to made it fairly clear that such a House action would be an abuse of the impeachment process, because Clinton’s actions weren’t high crimes or misdemeanors that justified this dramatic move under the terms of the Constitution. Once that idea settled in, it moved along in the House. I’m not aware that the Senator had a lot to do on this issue besides talk to his colleagues in the Senate. 

During the House proceedings, Democratic Senators were asking each other, 'Are there any members on our side who are likely to feel heavy pressure to vote for the impeachment resolution?'

Q: During the House proceedings.

Parker: Yes, during the House proceedings, Democratic Senators were asking each other, “Are there any members on our side who are likely to feel heavy pressure to vote for the impeachment resolution?”

Q: While it was bubbling in the House, didn’t he suggest that Greg Craig be an additional attorney in dealing with the House?

Parker: Yes, Greg had been a member of our staff. The Clinton administration knew him also, but the Senator was strongly for him.... Dale Bumpers was very effective too. He had an impressive team representing him, and both Greg and Dale were outstanding. The die was basically cast. Most of the Democrats, both in the House and in the Senate—certainly more than enough in the Senate to prevent the resolution from passing with a two-thirds vote—felt that this was an abuse of power. People looked at it on the merits and said, “Yes, what Clinton did was an embarrassment, but it wasn’t an impeachable offense. Why are they doing this to the President?” It was such an excessive abuse of political power by the Republican majority that Kennedy was very comfortable opposing it, and he was critical at several points along the way.

Q: What was the view of why this was happening? Why this movement to get Clinton, if that’s what it was? Many people have commented on the strong and very negative feelings toward Clinton and about the desire to bring him down. Some have said that it was evident from the beginning, and this impeachment was the voice it finally found.

It was the new and more extreme partisanship at its worst. The right wing was salivating over the possibility.

Parker: It was the new and more extreme partisanship at its worst. The right wing was salivating over the possibility, and the GOP majority in the House, still reveling about its party’s success in gaining control of Congress in 1994, was bent on tarring and feathering a Democratic president as much as possible. 

The politics of it were pretty clear for most Democratic Senators. “Republicans are feeding some red meat to the right wing. That’s all this is. They’re taking it a step beyond what the Constitution permits. It certainly doesn’t require this action.” The attitude was, “We’ll see what happens with the House. Perhaps they’ll even summon the ability to reject impeachment.” But with a Republican majority, it wasn’t realistic that they would do so. 

Before the House voted, the 1998 Congressional elections took place. Impeachment was an issue, and Republicans lost six seats in the House, probably because of it. But Republicans didn’t relent. They were bent on catering to the right wing, and brought the impeachment resolution to a vote a month later, in December. In a sense, House Democrats were pressured by the election. They realized the issue was partisan politics at its ugliest, but that it would not affect their next reelection. They thought, I’m very comfortable voting no on the impeachment resolution in the House. 

The politics of it played out fairly quickly in terms of how it would affect the Senate. I don’t think the White House, frankly, ever thought there was a serious risk that Clinton would be convicted by the Senate. They put a lot of effort into trying to line up moderate Republicans, but Republicans, at the same time, were basically willing to fight to the last man standing and to do all they could to embarrass him....

The GOP argument that people thought was being made was, “Even if we don’t get him out of there, we’re at least stymieing any significant Clinton agenda for the rest of his term.” The politics of it wouldn’t cost them any votes with their constituency, and in some ways they felt that it might at least give them a leg up on some of the other issues they were working on. I think that was one of Kennedy’s principal concerns: “While this cloud is hanging over the White House and Congress, what’ll happen to the issues we care about?” Fortunately, it boiled down to almost a side issue, in the sense that it didn’t have a profound impact. It was pretty clear that impeachment was a futile effort in terms of the results.

Q: What was Kennedy’s view of the behavior of the special prosecutor? Ken Starr was pushing this very hard.

Parker: He thought it was abusive. The feeling from the start was that battle lines were being drawn. You were either all for it or all against it. There wasn’t any group in the middle saying, “What do we do? How do we handle this?” The drive for impeachment went off the rails....

Nobody could believe it. The only concern among Democrats, I would say, was that a dramatic piece of new evidence might be brought out that would change things, but that didn’t seem to be happening. When the House-passed resolution arrived in the Senate, the only question was how the impeachment trial proceedings would be carried out by the Senators. A caucus of all Senators was held in the Old Senate Chamber, because of the historic nature of the issue. The debate was long and contentious, but the only major issue was the length of the trial and how many witnesses could be called.

Q: Were you there?

Parker: No, only Senators were there, and maybe a few members of the leadership staff. Kennedy had spent a fair amount of time with our Judiciary Committee staff, working out how the Senate should handle the trial and what the procedure should be. It became reasonably clear that the only way Democrats would be embarrassed was if they weren’t able to agree on a realistic way to make the proceedings go as smoothly as possible....

There was a lot of Democratic resistance to bringing in witnesses, that sort of thing, and some preliminary questions needed to be answered. In debating these issues, Kennedy was very vociferous in saying that we needed to figure out a way to conduct the trial in a way that a fair defense could be presented. 

To his amazement, Republican Senator Phil Gramm volunteered a reasonable compromise, and Kennedy, at the critical moment, stood up and said, “I think Phil Gramm has a good suggestion. Why don’t we do it this way?” It was a defining moment. Senators were practically at each others’ throats in the chamber debate, from what people said, when all of a sudden here was Ted Kennedy reaching out with an olive branch, as was Phil Gramm from his side. He said, “You could hear the bitterness and the tensions begin to expire. People were holding their breaths that we would work this out.”

Q: Well, the House managers were pressing, were they not, for something very protracted in the Senate?

Parker: They wanted to have a show, yes.

Q: They wanted to stretch it out. And wasn’t Lindsey Graham one of the House managers?

Parker: Yes. It seems remarkable because he’s relatively easy to work with in the Senate. That was most Senators’ first introduction to him.

Q: He wasn’t a Senator then.

Parker: Right. The insistence of the House managers for a lengthy trial polarized the Senate, but I don’t think it had any long-term effects. People didn’t carry any grudges. There was a feeling even among Senate Republicans that the House Republicans had gone too far in polarizing the issue. Even the Senate Republicans, it turned out, weren’t willing to embroil the Senate in as furious a partisan debate as the House had held.

Q: Certainly the House Republicans were way ahead of where the general public was on this, just as they were with the Contract with America.

Parker: Yes, they thought they could sell it, and they couldn’t. Whatever feelings they had against Clinton, it was an aberration to try to impeach him. Besides, by that time he was near the end of his second and final term as president. 

People felt that House Republicans had overreached their power. Democrats were obviously feeding that argument. “What you have here is a runaway Republican House majority.” That’s why the Senate was created, as the place “to cool the hot passions of the House.” “Our only regret,” Senators were saying, “is that the House didn’t recognize that they’ve gone too far. They’ve saddled us with this problem, and now we have to deal responsibly with it.” 

A lot of Republicans basically felt, “Let’s get the trial over with and let the chips fall where they may. Let’s not get tangled up over the procedures or over how long the trial will last. We’ll do this as though politics were stripped out of it. It’ll be as though Clinton is the defendant in a case, and he will have his lawyers, and the House will have its lawyers, and you’ll have a reasonable amount of time to present your argument and call your witnesses, but that’s all. We won’t let this embarrass the Senate.” To us, the handwriting was on the wall. Conceivably, something new could have come out. That’s what many were concerned about. Who knew what might happen? But at the same time, it seemed that the more we heard about the case, the more it seemed that the House had gone far beyond what the Constitution intended. 

The issue, to some extent, began turning toward how badly this might hurt Republicans in the coming 2000 election. Some Democrats were almost eager to see it go through and to see the Republicans defeated even thought it was bad for the country and bad for our image in the world. It was appalling. People recognized that. “But given where we are, let’s get through it in a rational way, and we’ll see what happens.” Nobody thought Republicans would have the votes to convict him and remove him from office.

Senator Kennedy, partly because of his longstanding role in the Judiciary Committee, was acting as a Judiciary Committee Senator and not as the chairman of the Labor Committee. He instinctively reacts strongly—whether it’s Watergate, the firing of Archibald Cox, or the Clinton impeachment—to anything that seems to be a fundamental abuse of the rule of law. Our country is grounded in that principle, and if people at the highest level are willing to thumb their nose at it, then it’s terrible for our country. He was able to be a voice of moderation—in part because of his understanding of the procedures. You probably should talk to his Judiciary staff. It all turned out well, and the Senate leaders were complimentary of Senator Kennedy for joining forces with Phil Gramm to find a way to end the logjam.

Q: Was that Trent Lott?

Parker: Yes. He was the Republican leader. In the end everything worked out.

Q: He was under a lot of pressure from the firebrands in the House.

Parker: Oh, yes, absolutely. Kennedy had a good relationship with Senator Lott, in spite of all of their hostility on various issues. I probably mentioned this before, but Henry Longfellow had a home in Massachusetts. That’s now an historic site, but he had a home in Mississippi as well. When Kennedy heard that, he gave Trent Lott a photo of the Longfellow house in Mississippi, framed along with a photo of the Longfellow house in Massachusetts and inscribed, “We can work together, Trent. We have similar ancestry.” [laughter] He loves things like that. 

The Senate is more collegial than the House in that way. The House votes more as a bloc. With 435 members, they don’t get to know each other as well, especially across party lines. Having only two Senators from each state was one of the shrewdest parts of the Constitution. Senators have more time to look at passionate issues and to make sure that the Congress is doing the right thing. The Senator’s personality is such that he’d love to have 99 friends in the Senate, and I’d say he has about 95. In any given Senate, there are about five Republican Senators who won’t have anything to do with him, but there are probably 10 or 15 other Republican Senators asking, “Why did Senator Kennedy go to Senator A instead of to me to work on this issue? I’d like to work with him on something too.”

Read Carey Parker's full oral history