WASHINGTON — They may be the most attentive members of the Senate jury, sitting hour after hour at their wooden desks: The dour Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), arms folded firmly across his chest. The professorial Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), peering from behind a stack of books, a wry smile occasionally lighting his face. The studious Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), their desks side by side, both intently taking notes on legal pads.
As the House's Republican prosecutors lay out their evidence, the chances that President Clinton will be removed from office rest with eight Democratic senators whose allegiance to the defendant might be shakable: Byrd, Moynihan, Lieberman and Feinstein, plus Robert Kerrey of Nebraska, Bob Graham of Florida, Charles S. Robb of Virginia and Max Cleland of Georgia.
So far, not one of them has signaled a readiness to vote for the president's conviction--a major reason both Democrats and Republicans still expect the trial to end in Clinton's acquittal. But if the fabric of Clinton's support ever starts to fray, these are the strings Republicans hope to pull first.
These potential swing Democrats have different reasons for disliking Clinton. Some have felt betrayed by his conduct. Some are worried about difficult reelection battles in conservative Southern states. Some are simply "loose cannons," independent thinkers who often decide tough issues their own way.
The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators, to remove a president from office. That means at least 12 Democrats would have to join the Senate's 55 Republicans--a long shot today.
But if any of these eight independent Democrats switch sides, others would likely follow--and at that point, the president's conviction might abruptly change from a long shot to an open question.
"We would be surprised if you find even one Democrat who votes for removal," a White House political consultant said. "But we're watching."
Three Categories of Such Democrats
The Democrats whose allegiance to Clinton may be shakable fall into three categories, a former Senate Democratic aide said:
* "Loose Cannons": Senators like Byrd, Moynihan and Kerrey, who have made independence from the White House a point of pride.
* "The Betrayed Caucus": Centrists like Lieberman and Feinstein, who were close to Clinton and feel personally betrayed by his behavior and deception.
* "The Politically Vulnerable": Senators like Robb, Graham and Cleland, up for reelection in coming years in Southern states where public sentiment may turn against Clinton.
Byrd, 81, is "the biggest wild card out there," the White House consultant said.
He has come closer than any other Democratic senator to saying that he might vote to convict Clinton. "I could go either way based on the evidence as I've seen it or heard it, and I've followed it pretty close," he said.
That balance could tip the wrong way if Clinton fails to show due deference to the Senate or proper contrition.
The West Virginian is notoriously independent, the guardian of Senate privileges and prerogatives. He has often said: "Senators don't serve under a president. We serve with him."
He does not think Clinton showed proper humility the day the House approved two articles of impeachment, slamming him publicly for calling a defiant press conference with dozens of Democrats.
"That was an egregious display of shameless arrogance, the likes of which I don't think I have seen," Byrd said in a television interview. He also said that Clinton was inappropriately "flippant" when the president told a reporter who asked how it felt to be impeached: "Not bad."
Democratic leaders say they do not expect Byrd to vote to remove Clinton--but they aren't sure.
Moynihan, 71, has been a frequent critic of Clinton on major policy issues, notably welfare reform. He was one of 21 senators to vote against the 1996 welfare bill that was one of Clinton's proudest accomplishments and was brutally critical of it.
"If this administration wishes to go down in history as one that abandoned, eagerly abandoned the national commitment to dependent children, so be it," he said. "I would not want to be associated with such an enterprise."
Last fall, he was one of only a few Democrats who insisted that Clinton's conduct was so serious that a full-scale debate over impeachment was warranted.
"We have a crisis of the regime," he said then. "You cannot have this kind of conduct as normal and acceptable and easily dismissed."
In December, however, he told the New York Times that he thought a formal censure was the appropriate outcome, because removing Clinton could "destabilize the presidency."
Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Moynihan aide who has spoken at length with the senator about the trial, said that he does not expect his former boss to vote in favor of conviction.
"I don't see what in this evidence could provoke him to vote to remove the president." O'Donnell said.