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Two Senators Drew Up Plan for Trial Hoping to Rise Above Partisan Rancor

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 5, 1999; Page A5

    After more than four months of brutal partisan feuding, Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have managed an as-yet-unmatched feat: crafting a truly bipartisan proposal to deal with the impeachment of President Clinton.

    The Gorton-Lieberman plan, though its fate is uncertain, envisions a short Senate trial that could end within a week to 10 days. It was written during two weeks in mid-December after what Gorton described as a "telepathic" telephone call between two longtime friends worried about the destructive partisan nature of the House impeachment proceedings.

    "We agreed we would like to come up with a way that was bipartisan and above-board," Gorton said. "We wanted to see that the debate was thorough and elevated and that the plan offered a way to bring it to a conclusion."

    Their proposal is being discussed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in private conversations with colleagues, but it has been criticized publicly, especially by some Senate conservatives worried about short-circuiting a solemn constitutional process.

    While its two authors acknowledge the plan may not survive intact as the trial blueprint, it is a starting point and, "if we've done nothing else," Gorton said, "we've moved dramatically in the direction of an expedited proceeding."

    The proposal envisions a trial that would begin next week with two days of opening presentations by the House-appointed prosecutors and Clinton's lawyers, followed by a day of questioning by senators.

    At that point, Gorton said, he and Lieberman would offer motions asking the Senate to decide whether to proceed to a full-scale trial on each of the two articles of impeachment, one alleging perjury and the other charging obstruction of justice by Clinton in the investigation of his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    The motions, Gorton said, would say that "assuming that all the facts alleged by the House are correct, they constitute sufficient grounds for conviction and removal of office." The Senate would then debate the motions for at least two days, Gorton said. Lieberman envisioned 20 minutes a senator – a maximum of 33 hours.

    After that, the senators would vote on each motion. If two-thirds of those voting agreed, a full-scale trial would begin. If two-thirds did not agree, an indication that the Senate did not have the votes to convict, the Senate would vote again on whether to dismiss the case or end the trial. That motion would carry on a simple majority.

    Lieberman stressed that failure to get a two-thirds majority would not mean an automatic end to the trial, which would continue as long as 51 senators did not vote to end or dismiss it. Also, Gorton added, the proposal does not address censure, which would have to be considered separately.

    The plan would probably win overwhelming support from the Senate's 45 Democrats, who are anxious for a quick exit from a trial and generally supportive of the idea that censure, not removal from office, should be Clinton's punishment. But the Lieberman-Gorton plan is more controversial among conservative Republicans and Gorton said Lott will not make it a formal resolution unless it had majority support from the GOP's 55 senators. Asked if Lott had that support, Gorton said, "I don't know."

    Lieberman, 56, is a close ideological soulmate of Clinton, but has often crossed party lines to support Republican causes and earned plaudits from the GOP last September when he went to the Senate floor to denounce Clinton's behavior with Lewinsky as "not just inappropriate," but also "immoral."

    Around the second week of December, Lieberman said, he came to believe that the House would impeach Clinton. Dismayed by the partisan bloodletting there, "I wanted to do what I could" to ensure that the Senate trial would proceed more decorously.

    "I probably had a dozen discussions with colleagues, and six or seven with Republicans," Lieberman said, among them Gorton, Lott and GOP Conference Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.).

    He reached Gorton on an airplane in mid-flight. "I was thinking I have to call Joe, and he called me first," Gorton said. They talked, and talked again. Then Gorton faxed Lieberman a memo, outlining the plan.

    Gorton, 70, regards Lieberman as a close personal friend. The two met – although Gorton remembers it only vaguely – in the mid-1980s when they were serving as attorneys general of their respective states. They met again after Lieberman's 1988 election to the Senate and Gorton's return to the chamber after a two-year absence.

    They have taken foreign trips together and worked together at times, even though their committee assignments do not overlap and even though Gorton's moderate-conservative views mesh with Lieberman's centrist-Democrat ideology only occasionally. "We're about as close you can be, given the way we're always running around here," Lieberman said.

    Both senators said they have consulted on a daily basis with Lott and Daschle, who have been talking daily with each other. In addition, they have spoken with a broad group of colleagues, among them influential institutionalists such as Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah); John H. Chafee (R-R.I.); Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.); and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

    Both senators said that while they didn't know how their proposal would fare, they intended to point out to their colleagues that even in a full-blown trial, the White House would probably move for early dismissal, requiring a simple majority to end the proceeding.

    Such a vote, Lieberman warned, would probably break almost exclusively along party lines. "If we don't do it [reach an agreement] by the end of this week, we're going to descend into a partisan battle, and that's not going to be any good for anybody," he said.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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