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Uncertainty Looms in Impeachment Trial

President Clinton's Senate impeachment trial. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) discusses President Clinton's impeachment trial Tuesday. (AP Photo)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A1

    The impeachment trial of President Clinton will open in the Senate on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced yesterday, even as Senate leaders struggled to reach agreement on such important procedural questions as how long the trial may run and whether witnesses will be called to testify.

    A growing number of Senate Republicans balked at a proposal by Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) for an abbreviated trial followed by a test vote, as their leaders unsuccessfully looked for a resolution to the procedural impasse on the eve of today's opening of the 106th Congress.

    By the end of a chaotic day of senatorial meetings, one new proposal circulating among both parties called for a limited but lengthier trial, followed by an up-or-down vote on acquittal. But the two parties were split over the issue of witnesses, with Democrats opposed and many Republicans in favor.

    The House Judiciary Committee Republicans who will prosecute the case against Clinton have insisted that a full-blown trial with witnesses is necessary and they met late yesterday, voicing increased confidence that the Senate would allow such testimony.

    With no consensus yet on how the Senate will run the first presidential impeachment trial in 130 years, Lott and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) met yesterday morning with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to review their plans for Thursday's opening of the trial -- the first time the three had met on impeachment.

    Later, in a brief appearance before reporters, Lott acknowledged the lack of agreement on how to proceed after that, but said, "It has to be done not only expeditiously but fairly."

    The first step will come today, when the new Congress assembles and the House must vote to reappoint the 13 prosecutors named last month after Clinton's impeachment. But there was no timetable yesterday for anything more than the ceremonial acts to start the trial on Thursday: reading the two articles of impeachment and swearing in the chief justice and the senators.

    Senate Republican Conference Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.), stressing the need for bipartisan agreement before the trial begins, said late yesterday that the Senate was far from reaching that point. "From what I've heard, there's a lot more work to be done," Mack said after meeting with Lott and other Republican leaders. "If it takes days to do it, it should take days."

    As senators shuttled in and out of the majority leader's office throughout the day, it became clear that the Gorton-Lieberman proposal, which has been shopped around the chamber by Lott, faced significant opposition among Republicans. The proposal calls for a minimum four-day trial with no witnesses, followed by an early test vote to determine whether there are the necessary 67 votes to convict the president.

    Early last evening, Daschle spoke to reporters and said the Gorton-Lieberman proposal "is on the table," contrary to reports that it was dead. Flanked by other Democratic senators, Daschle said there is still "a great deal of interest in pursuing a framework" along those lines. But both Democrats and Republicans were looking for ways to modify the proposal.

    One advantage of the alternative for a somewhat longer trial was that it would obviate the need for the test vote that has drawn particular fire from Republican senators.

    Lott and Daschle have appointed groups of senior senators to help draft a compromise proposal satisfactory to both parties, a sign both of the goal of bipartisanship and the continuing absence of consensus across party lines.

    Both Republicans and Democrats have scheduled party caucuses for today in an attempt to find a plan for proceeding with the trial. The Republican conference was originally scheduled to last less than two hours, but senators were warned that it could spill into the afternoon.

    Daschle said he did not expect that either he or Lott would be in a position to present a specific proposal to their respective caucuses Wednesday. More likely, he said, they will outline the options that have been discussed.

    He said it is possible that the Senate could proceed Monday without an agreed-upon procedure but that neither he nor Lott wants to see that happen. It would be "an invitation to a prolonged procedure that could take weeks if not months -- probably months," he said.

    Meanwhile, the House prosecutors were more optimistic that they would be allowed to call witnesses. "I'm confident that we will be able to put our case on," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said. He added, "I exude confidence," while expressing frustration at the lack of agreement over how to proceed. "Time's wasting. We need to agree on a format."

    Lott has spoken with Hyde about the prospect of holding an expedited trial with limited witnesses, according to several sources, most recently last Thursday after Hyde objected to a truncated process.

    Several Senate Republicans expressed a desire to hear from Hyde and his team before deciding whether to allow witnesses to be called. "We need to hear from the House managers and from the White House. I'm going to let them tell us what they need," said Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

    Lieberman said he believed the process would spin out of control if any witnesses are called. "Once you call witnesses you cannot avoid sexual detail or control time . . . Once you bring in one witness the dam is broken."

    At the White House, where lawyers have been preparing for multiple contingencies, officials anxiously awaited word, frustrated that the matter was out of their hands. "We're all sitting around staring at each other," said an aide.

    While publicly deferential to the Senate and promising to be ready to start a curtailed trial next week, Clinton aides made clear that a full-blown trial would force them to engage in longer preparations much like the prosecution. If the proceedings are to involve witnesses, the White House may need weeks or longer for the same extensive pretrial evidence-gathering and depositions common in big court cases.

    Lott read his statement before television cameras -- declining to answer any questions from a pool of reporters -- after he and Daschle returned from the Supreme Court, where they went to meet with Rehnquist to discuss procedures for the trial. They met for half an hour and it was shortly thereafter that Lott announced that the trial would start Thursday.

    "At the end of the day, I'm going to do my best to make sure that we complete our constitutional duty under the rules of the Senate and come to a conclusion that is fair and, hopefully, quick also."

    Lott's biggest problem, however, appeared to be with members of his own party. He and Nickles met for nearly two hours with a dozen GOP senators who had staked out a variety of positions on how to proceed, including Gorton as well as critics of his plan. But the session produced no breakthrough.

    Before the meeting, Nickles said he believed there would be no early test vote involving a need for a two-thirds majority. More likely, he said, would be some kind of vote requiring only a simple majority.

    All left without comment except for Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who said "there is no Republican position" as such on how to proceed. "The desire is obviously to begin as soon as possible," Bennett said.

    Asked if the trial would take days or weeks, he said it was "too early to tell." Asked if witnesses would be called, he offered the same response.

    Thursday's opening of the trial would involve a series of formal steps, beginning with passage of a resolution calling on the secretary of the Senate to notify the House managers to appear to display the articles of impeachment, now tentatively scheduled for late morning.

    The House managers will be escorted into the Senate chamber to a specially constructed table in the well of the Senate. After reading the articles of impeachment charging Clinton with lying under oath and obstructing justice to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, the House managers will depart. Then the Senate will formally notify the chief justice it is ready to proceed.

    Rehnquist is scheduled to arrive at the Senate around 1 p.m. Thursday. He will be sworn in by the presiding officer of the Senate -- Vice President Gore could assume that role but is unlikely to -- and in turn he will swear in the members of the Senate, most likely as a group. The next step could be a formal summons to the president.

    It is not likely the real trial would begin before next week, however, even if procedural differences are resolved. Rehnquist has a potential schedule conflict hearing cases on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings next week, though a Senate source said it did not represent a significant problem.

    Amid all the maneuvering yesterday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) warned that predicting the outcome of the trial is foolhardy. "Be careful, be careful," he said in an interview with C-SPAN. "There's no sound and indisputable count as to votes here," he said. "And votes may shift depending on things that are unforeseen at the present. Who knows? This could conceivably end different."

    Byrd said he "could go either way" based on what he has seen so far.

    The Judiciary Republicans have already divided their trial duties. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.) is slated to deliver the opening statement, while Hyde plans to give the closing statement.

    Reps. Chris Cannon (Utah), Steve Chabot (Ohio), George W. Gekas (Pa.), and Bill McCollum (Fla.) will prepare witnesses and shape strategy for the trial. Reps. Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.), Edward G. Bryant (Tenn.), Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and James E. Rogan (Calif.) will present the witnesses, if any, and perform interrogations. Barr and Sensenbrenner will handle evidentiary questions, while Reps. Charles T. Canady (Fla.), Steve Buyer (Ind.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) will address matters concerning the law of impeachment.

    Staff writers Peter Baker, Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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