Senate trial hottest ticket on the Hill – Hundreds queue for 15-minute pass to political history

WASHINGTON — At an entrance to the Capitol building across from the U.S. Supreme Court, the public was expected to cluster this morning, clutching blue cards printed with the words, “United States Senate,” waiting to catch 15 minutes of history.

Among them were expected to be many North Carolinians who flooded the offices of Sen. Jesse Helms and Sen. John Edwards with calls this week, wondering how they could get a seat at the impeachment trial of President Clinton.

“Some of these folks just have a general interest in the political process and want to come up and see it,” said Jimmy Broughton, Helms’ chief of staff.  “But a lot of it is people saying, `We want to make sure y’all do the right thing on this.’ They want to be a witness to history.”

But planning a trip to see the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years isn’t like planning a trip to the theater. There’s no Ticketmaster hub to contact, no advance reservations.

Constituents hoping to get inside as the Senate reconvenes at 1 p.m. today to hear the case against the president must stop by either Helms’ or Edwards’ office to request a pass.

Each senator has an unlimited supply of blue cards, or gallery passes, which are good for 15 minutes and don’t have to be returned. But visitors bearing blue can expect to endure long lines stretching from the Senate law library entrance, a wait that was estimated to be 3 1/2 hours last Thursday when trial proceedings began, Broughton said. Only 50 seats are available to the general public.

Becky Daugherty, spokeswoman for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, said she expects the crowds to continue this week. “We’ve been getting plenty of calls from people all over, wanting to know how to get in,” she said. “It’s hard to know how long the wait will be.”

Helms’ office has received hundreds of calls since Monday from people trying to determine whether it’s worth their while to make the drive to Washington, while the Edwards camp estimates it’s taking 10-15 calls a day.

The hottest tickets are the three daily passes, or yellow cards, that each senator has -impeachment-frenzied Washington’s equivalent to courtside seats at a Duke-Carolina hoops game. The yellow cards are good on any day the Senate is in session and are the equivalent of reserved seats — no lines, no fidgeting. Normally, just as the name implies, daily passes allow the bearer to watch an entire day’s session; but during President Clinton’s trial, their use will be limited.

Each yellow pass is dated for one-day use only.

Edwards’ office will distribute them to people who come by on a first-come, first-served basis and ask that they be returned in one hour. Helms also will offer the yellow cards, but, due to demand, the passes will be good for only 20 minutes at a time. They also will take Senate administration’s advice and require yellow-card bearers to leave a driver’s license, which will be returned when the passes are brought back, Broughton said.

All 100 senators have one family seat that will not be available to the public.

State residents aren’t the only people who will have a hard time getting a ticket. Senate staffers, who usually hold floor privileges when work is going on in the chamber, hold no such authority during the trial; they, too, will be vying for the yellow passes. “But we’re going to be here quite a bit,” said Broughton. “I think we’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch.”

For information about passes, contact Sen. John Edwards at 825 Hart Senate Office Building, (202) 224-3154, or Sen. Jesse Helms at 403 Dirksen Senate Office Building, (202) 224-6342.

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: January 14, 1999 Page: A4 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company