Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ordered the Senate's doors closed Monday after senators voted to debate in secret a motion to dismiss impeachment charges against President Clinton.
"The sergeant-at-arms will please close the doors," Rehnquist, who is presiding at the trial, said solemnly after the Senate voted, 57-43, to reject a motion to open Senate deliberations on a motion to dismiss articles of impeachment against Clinton. That means the debate will be held behind closed doors. Most of the majority Republicans voted for closed debate. Only a handful of senators crossed party lines.
The Senate officially was deliberating on a motion filed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to dismiss the case, a proposal both sides expect to be defeated. But with all 100 senators in the same room, they entered the session hoping to find another way to conclude the trial in a manner that would avoid a partisan rupture over whether to call witnesses, as many Senate Republicans and the House GOP prosecutors insist.
Estimates of when the Senate will go back into the sunlight to vote on Byrd's dismissal motion ranged from this afternoon to sometime Wednesday. Senators deliberated for 4 1/2 hours Monday evening and planned to reconvene at noon today.
New York Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles E. Schumer voted for the resolution proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to open up the discussions. It fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the rule, which dates from the Senate's earliest days.
Backing up the rule is another that permits the expulsion of any senator and the dismissal "with prejudice" of any staffer who reveals what went on. Rules also require that the transcript of the closed debate will remain confidential.
Going into secret session to debate the president's fate "is the most dangerous thing that could have happened," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who co-sponsored Harkin's proposal. Harkin said the Senate's vote "will live in infamy."
But the sequestering of the Senate was defended by Republican Paul Coverdell of Georgia.
"Changing these rules would not only be unprecedented but would seriously hamper each senator's ability to speak freely and fulfill their constitutional obligation," Coverdell said.
After the resolution to open the proceedings failed, and under the watchful eyes of a beefed up Capitol Police contingent, Senate employees politely cleared the visitors and media galleries, and the TV cameras were shut down.
Democrats calculated that Republican senators would be embarrassed by arguing on the record for Clinton's removal.
While the Republicans remain far -- almost hopelessly far -- from getting the 67 votes needed to remove the president, it was not a good day for Clinton.
Before the Senate invoked its old rules, Republicans "summarily rejected" a bipartisan proposal to end everything Friday with a vote on the articles of impeachment themselves.
Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., claimed he has enough votes to quash a proposal to dismiss the case, whenever that vote comes.
A bipartisan agreement provides that if the motion to dismiss fails, the Senate will vote next on whether to call witnesses. It is an open question as to whether Lott can command a majority to require witnesses to undergo private, but sworn, testimony.
A number of Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine; Gordon Smith of Oregon; Olympia Snowe of Maine; Slade Gorton of Washington and Richard Shelby of Alabama are reportedly looking for ways to end the trial without calling witnesses.
Meanwhile, CNN reported Monday that House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., under pressure from some Republican senators, has decided not to call Kathleen Willey, a White House aide who charged on CBS' 60 Minutes show that Clinton groped and fondled her in a hallway near the Oval Office.
Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., strenuously objected to calling Mrs. Willey saying, "that would take us down a whole new road."
And Republicans continued to discuss an exit strategy proposed last week by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. It would allow the senators to find Clinton guilty of the charges but would not remove him from office.
Hatch said the compromise would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Sen. Collins said Monday she supports the idea.
But Democrats noted the Constitution provides for only two results of a trial: acquittal, or conviction and removal.
The plan directly collides with Clinton's strategy, as promoted by his legal team. They have steadfastly maintained Clinton is innocent of any crime.
As one of Clinton's lawyers, Nicole Seligman, told the Senate on Monday, "The case cannot be made. It is time to end it."
The House GOP managers, she said, "have with great ingenuity spun out theories of wrongdoing that they have advanced repeatedly, passionately, and persistently. But mere repetition, no matter how dogged, cannot create a reality where there is none."
She said the articles are constitutionally weak because "they are a textbook example of a prosecutorial grab bag." The "complete lack of specificity" of the House charges have made it "impossible to know what the president is alleged to have done wrong."
But Republican Rep. Charles Canady of Florida began his argument against dismissal by invoking the image of President Richard M. Nixon and suggesting the standards set by Clinton's lawyers would have kept him in office.
Clinton, Canady said, "made a series of choices that has brought us to this day. He made the choice to violate the law, and he made that choice repeatedly. He knew what he was doing, he reflected on it, perhaps he struggled with his conscience. But when the time came to decide, he deliberately and willfully chose to violate the laws of this land."
Hyde, having failed to nudge any Democrats toward the conviction side, used a kind of Rodney Dangerfield approach in Monday's speech.
"I sort of feel that we have fallen short in the respect side because of the fact that we represent the House, the other body, kind of blue-collar people, and we're over here trying to survive with our impeachment articles," Hyde said.
He warned the Senate will never get the impeachment issue behind it "unless we vote up or down on the articles" of impeachment.
The articles charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice, accusing Clinton of conspiring to deny Paula Jones a fair trial in her private sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.
Three Republicans -- Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Sen. Collins -- voted for the motion to make the debate public.
Democrats who voted against it were Max Baucus of Montana; Byrd; John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia; Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.
Also Monday, 10 Republican senators submitted questions to White House lawyers that they intended to be posed to the president. In a letter to White House Counsel Charles Ruff, however, the senators acknowledged that "we do not take the view that President Clinton is compelled to respond."
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said Monday that neither the president nor White House lawyers would respond to the inquiries.