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How Rules For Impeachment Trials Are Negotiated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How might the Senate conduct an impeachment trial of President Trump? The Constitution says the chief justice must preside and at least two-thirds of the vote is needed to convict. But that's about all it says, which means lots of details are up to Senate leaders.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After the last impeachment trial ended in the acquittal of President Clinton in 1999, the chief justice, William Rehnquist, remarked on how well it had all gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: I have been impressed by the manner in which the majority leader and the minority leader have agreed on procedural rules in spite of the differences that separate their two parties on matters of substance.

CHANG: The Senate majority leader at the time was Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi. The minority leader was Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota. We brought them together to explain how they conducted a bipartisan impeachment trial despite their political differences. Here's Trent Lott.

TRENT LOTT: When the House voted, the next day, I did reach out to the Democratic leader, the minority leader at the time, Tom Daschle, my good friend, and said, in effect, Tom, this is in our lap, whether we like it or not. And we've got to see if we can find a way to work together to make it to bipartisan, nonpartisan if you will. I think we achieved that. It wasn't easy. And it took a few days, I guess a couple of weeks, to actually settle all the rules, which were adopted by 100-0 as to how we would go forward with our responsibility.

CHANG: When it came to the two of you, do you remember disagreements that you had to individually work out?

TOM DASCHLE: Well, I think there were a lot of - almost daily, there were disagreements or at least the potential for disagreements. But we had a hotline on the desks of - in our offices that were only for us. We had - we - there were times we'd rather not go through staff, we'd not go through any kind of other procedural efforts to talk. We really wanted to be able to communicate together. And I think that made a huge difference.

LOTT: Yeah, there were disagreements between the two parties and sometimes even between us about how to proceed. But the difference and the important thing is when we had a disagreement, I could get Tom on the phone or we could sit down and we would find a way forward that reflected properly on the institution of the United States Senate.

CHANG: Is there a particular moment during the trial that stands out to either of you where you were particularly proud of it as reflecting genuine bipartisanship?

LOTT: Well, when I talked to Tom that first Sunday about how to proceed, I suggested to Tom that he send somebody of his choosing and I would send somebody of mine to sit down and sort of lay out a plan of how we could get this done in a reasonably short period of time. I believe those people were Joe Lieberman for Tom and Slade Gorton from Washington state for me. And they sat down and came up with what I thought was a pretty good procedure. But when I presented it to the Republican conference, they did everything but stone me and throw me out in the hall.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LOTT: And I had to confess to Tom that wasn't going to work. Then we had the meeting. We came up with the Gramm-Kennedy solution. And just think about that - Phil Gramm and Ted Kennedy basically came up with some of the same ideas of how to proceed, and then we put that in writing and went forward.

CHANG: You both believe that when there were disagreements between members of your respective parties, that there was an effort on both your parts to try to resolve those disagreements?

DASCHLE: Absolutely. It's all a matter of chemistry, and we had a very, very good one. And I think that was the reason things worked so well.

CHANG: How would you describe your chemistry with Senator Lott?

DASCHLE: Well, I would say it was one of trust. It was one of admiration. I mean, we came from totally different backgrounds, experiences. He from the South; me from the Midwest. And had a number of challenges, and we had to go through 9/11, of course, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the impeachment. So over time, he migrated, for me, from just a colleague to a co-leader to now a very close friend, and I treasure the friendship. And all of that occurred, I think, as a result of what we had to face and the realization we had to face it together.

CHANG: Well, the reason I ask about chemistry is we're in a different moment now. And I'm curious if either of you believe that the same kind of chemistry could ever exist between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer.

LOTT: Well, let me jump in on that. First of all, I do believe that big moments, important issues, give people an opportunity to rise to the occasion and do things maybe they wouldn't have done otherwise. I really worry that members on both parties, either party, administrations, presidents, Congress, they don't communicate enough. And that was one of the secrets, I think, to our relationship, is Tom and I talked all the time.

DASCHLE: Absolutely, Trent. And we used to have two small tables, Ailsa, two small Senate tables at lunch. And you'd come and sit family-style, and you'd sit with as many Republicans as Republicans would sit with Democrats. And somehow they closed that little lunchroom down for some reason. I...

CHANG: Oh, when did that close?

DASCHLE: Oh, about 10 years ago, at least.

CHANG: Interesting.

DASCHLE: And I think those off-the-record, completely without staff, member-only lunches did a lot to create the kind of opportunity for people to get to know one another, maybe build relationships and have a candid conversation that doesn't exist today very often.

CHANG: You talk about needing to keep talking to each other. Well, a few days ago, McConnell said that he will try to reach an agreement with Schumer on a Senate trial plan. But if the two of them can't agree, he'll just go back and come up with a trial plan with just the Republicans. How does that sound to you?

DASCHLE: Well, I think everyone recognizes that there are moments when you start the discussions by sort of - I won't - this is not meant to be a negative thing - but posture a little bit just to kind of lay it out. But I know Chuck and I know Mitch, and I know that they both have a high respect for the institution, and they know, as Trent and I understood, this is history, and this is history at its most important. And I just have to believe that both of them are going to rise to the occasion when history requires it.

CHANG: Though I do have to point out that this is a very different time now. I mean, right now we're in the throes of the next presidential election. When the Clinton impeachment trial was happening, the presidential election was already over. So isn't this moment so much more fraught for these two Senate leaders currently than it was for the two of you?

DASCHLE: Well, it is. And that's one of the reasons Trent and I have been a little reluctant to do these interviews because we realize that our experience, in many ways, is different than the one that is now underway. And so we certainly don't want to presume that what worked for us is going to work across the board for somebody else.

LOTT: You know, while everybody is scrambling to try to figure out how these things work, we have had three impeachment processes in history. And I was out on the judiciary committee in 1973 and '74 as a freshman congressman during the Nixon impeachment proceedings.

CHANG: Wow.

LOTT: And I had been one of the, you know, hardhead defenders of - against impeachment of Nixon until I saw the smoking gun, and I did go to the floor of the House and announce that I would vote for one article of impeachment, obstruction of justice, which is the toughest thing I ever had to do in my 35 years in Congress. So there are some processes, even though the times are different, as to how these things can be done or, if you will, must be done.

CHANG: Former Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle reflecting on the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. It was a pleasure to speak with both of you.

LOTT: I hope we didn't get each other in trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

DASCHLE: Wouldn't be the first time.

LOTT: We use each other's lines and give no credit to...

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Well, at least if you mutually plagiarize, then it's fine.

LOTT: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Thank you so much, and have a happy holiday.

DASCHLE: You, too. Thank you.

LOTT: Thank you very much. Thanks, Tom.

DASCHLE: See you, Trent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.