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Senate Quest for Accord Reflects Contrast

Impeach,WPNI Spectators wait in line at the Capitol Thursday for tickets to watch President Clinton's trial in the Senate. (Reginald A. Pearman Jr. —

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  • By Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, January 8, 1999; Page A1

    While Senate leaders faced uncertain odds as they tried to fashion a bipartisan plan for trying President Clinton, their extraordinary efforts to reach agreement yesterday presented a marked contrast to the one-sided impeachment battle in the House.

    Unlike the House, where the majority routinely forces its agenda by the sheer weight of numbers and rules stacked in its favor, the Senate demands consensus, and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was struggling mightily to find it yesterday during a lengthy round of meetings with senators of both parties.

    The stakes were much bigger than usual. Not only was Clinton on trial for alleged crimes committed as a result of his dalliance with a former White House intern, but the Senate was on trial as well, challenged to conduct a dignified proceeding that would not degenerate into the same partisan hash that prevailed last year in the House.

    "Senator [Thomas A.] Daschle and I are not dictators," Lott told reporters late yesterday. "We are leaders that are getting some latitude . . . but we have to bring along 98 other senators. We're struggling very hard to do that."

    Daschle (D-S.D.), the minority leader, stood next to him and replied that "I couldn't have said it better," completing an exchange that would have occasioned open-mouthed amazement in the deeply divided House.

    Despite their best efforts, consensus remained elusive yesterday, and there continued to be a real danger that the Senate could collapse into the kind of partisan bickering Lott and Daschle have pledged to avoid. The House prosecutors want to call witnesses to help make their case. The White House doesn't want witnesses for fear they could introduce a new element of uncertainty and prolong a process it believes the public wants cut short. And many conservatives inside and outside the Senate are pressing Lott for a full trial.

    Senate Democrats are standing firm with the White House and have rejected a compromise GOP proposal to have opening statements from both sides and only then to vote on whether to call witnesses.

    Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is interviewed outside the Capitol
    A reporter interviews Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) outside the Capitol Thursday. (Craig Cola --

    Some Capitol Hill veterans saw the back-and-forth this week as part of the normal circuitous route to agreements in the Senate. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) suggested "there's an impasse – for the moment." The Senate needed time: "We've only been back here for a few days, and this is a very complex thing to rush through," he added. "There's a natural ripening process."

    The Senate is almost never in a rush. In normal times, any one of 100 senators has the power to launch a filibuster at any moment. Filibusters are not permitted during an impeachment trial, but conviction takes a two-thirds majority, an impossible threshold without an extraordinary degree of bipartisan cooperation.

    Because of such rules, the majority must be circumspect in its treatment of the minority, and the minority should be appreciative of this deference. Parties often agree to disagree, but open breaches are rare. Absent altogether is the perpetual partisan warfare that in recent years has marked the House, where the majority routinely "rolls" the minority on straight party-line votes.

    And besides, nobody wants to look bad. It was best to have a pretrial procedural agreement, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told reporters. Even though "we're not a courtroom," he said, "we don't want chaos, anyway."

    For several days now, Lott and other Senate leaders have been trying to head off such chaos – and their efforts seemed to fall apart and then revive by the hour.

    By the time the Senate convened Wednesday, it quickly became apparent that one bipartisan plan to hold an abbreviated trial, with a quick vote to identify whether there were the votes to convict, was in trouble.

    Lott had appeared to favor it in the interests of bipartisanship and a quick end to an unpleasant task, but Senate conservatives and conservative groups that make up a significant part of the GOP's base voters were holding out for witnesses and an extended proceeding.

    Hopes for a quick deal rose again Wednesday night when Republican and Democratic negotiators for the Senate met with the House prosecutors and White House lawyers at the Capitol.

    The White House offered to stipulate to the evidence compiled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in exchange for a quick trial without witnesses. But while both parties generally agreed to allow both sides to make opening remarks and allow for questioning within a few days, the GOP insisted on leaving open the possibility of then calling witnesses. The Democrats, by contrast, wanted to end the proceedings and vote on whether to acquit or convict.

    By the time Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had sworn them in as jurors, Democrats were openly discouraged. Republicans had called a bipartisan caucus, but it fell through because they apparently forgot to notify the Democrats.

    Tempers rose. Democrats charged the GOP was in thrall to the hard-line House prosecutors. Thompson said he was "very disappointed" in such remarks. Lott and Daschle announced the competing plans would go to the floor.

    Lott said later, "We are in uncharted waters," trying to put together the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years. Indeed, the Senate was trying out arcane and unique procedures on the ceremonial side, just as members were trying to craft a unique agreement on trial procedures.

    Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) explained that "the Senate is in its usual legislative mode," and "not all senators have accepted the fact that the Senate is a court of impeachment and that we took an oath to be jurors and to make decisions based on fact. The problem is all this political finagling going on."

    Positions seemed to be hardening during the day, and senators were starting to speak out. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he wanted "a full-scale trial" with as many witnesses as necessary, and didn't care if other Senate business took a back seat. "One hundred years from now they're not going to care about what the nation's agenda was at the time," Inhofe said. "They're going to talk about the quality of the product."

    Stevens, who has been working behind the scenes for the Republicans to try to craft a deal with the Democrats, explained that the most ardent proponents of calling witnesses see that as the only way to unearth damaging new evidence that would improve what are now long odds for conviction.

    "They want to try to convince those people who already made up their minds to change their minds," he said. "Unfortunately, it is a political process and I don't envision the ability [of prosecutors] to get 67 votes" to convict Clinton.

    Many Democrats were adamant against having live testimony. "We feel strongly that witnesses would lead to a spectacle," said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). "There comes a point where you don't want to be used to legitimize something you don't believe in."

    And Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I) said Democrats believe that once one side calls witnesses, the other side would call witnesses, and "the conduct of the trial would be taken over by the lawyers on either side." Without some kind of upfront control, "the trial takes on a life of its own."

    Despite such rhetoric, the two leaders were exuding goodwill, minimizing differences and promising greater efforts at the end of the day. Rest assured, Daschle said, "the Senate must stay in control of this process."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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