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Senators Envision Swift Clinton Trial

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 28, 1998; Page A1

    Plans for the Senate's trial of President Clinton began to take shape yesterday as key senators said it could begin within days after Congress reconvenes Jan. 6 and conclude swiftly, possibly with a tough censure although perhaps without a financial penalty.

    But several Republicans indicated they may insist that Clinton say he lied to a grand jury, which he has so far refused to do. Some also signaled they will resist censure before the completion of a full-blown trial. And Democrats reacted icily to the possibility of a White House challenge to the legitimacy of the House impeachment votes.

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) also suggested that there may be no need to call witnesses, such as Monica S. Lewinsky and other figures in the sex scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment by the House on charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice.

    The senators' comments filled in some but far from all of the blank spaces in the scenario for the first Senate trial of an impeached president in 130 years. It would begin as soon as the Senate arranges for House "managers" to make an official presentation of the articles of impeachment and summons Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to preside over the trial. The president would be given time to respond, normally about a month, and then both sides could present witnesses if they choose. Deliberations would be conducted in closed session, and a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, is required to convict and remove the president from office.

    But there is no requirement to examine witnesses or even to reach a verdict. A motion to suspend or adjourn the trial is possible at any point and can be approved by majority vote, or 51 senators. Critical questions such as how long the trial would go on before censure is considered and what kind of censure it would be were addressed but not resolved in yesterday's interviews.

    With so many open questions and so much at stake, senators of both parties appeared to go out of their way to appear less partisan and combative than their House counterparts were in impeaching Clinton earlier this month.

    "You're going to see a lot more civility, you're going to see Democrats and Republicans reaching out to try to find some solution," Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

    Daschle said he and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) are discussing a timetable under which the trial could start "around" Jan. 7 or 8.

    Daschle did not say how long the trial might last but questioned whether the White House would need the four weeks normally allowed to prepare a defense in impeachment cases. "I think we could collapse it, if not waive it entirely," he said. The facts have been "reported and analyzed and debated ... as much as perhaps anything in history," he contended.

    He reiterated his belief, widely shared in both parties, that the Senate does not have the two-thirds majority to remove the president and noted that the Senate could adjourn the trial and move to a censure early in the proceedings.

    Although some lawmakers have suggested a financial penalty as part of a censure, such as the cost of the Lewinsky investigation, Daschle said he was inclined to oppose a financial penalty and said he believed that Lott shares his view. "I don't think a fee will be part of the final solution," he said. Daschle did not elaborate. Some senators have questioned the fairness of a fine as well as its constitutionality.

    Hatch, interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation," said publicly what some others have said privately: "I don't see any reason to call those witnesses." The president "has already admitted to some very terrible things," and the need now is to "find out where the votes are and then do what is best under the circumstances for the American people," Hatch said. If witnesses are called, the trial could last three to six months, he contended.

    It was not immediately clear whether the House managers or the White House would forgo examination of witnesses. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who will head the House managers' team, has said he would not need to call witnesses unless the White House challenges their grand jury testimony, according to committee spokesman Paul McNulty.

    Hatch reiterated that the Senate might turn to censure after it is conclusively demonstrated that there is no possibility of a two-thirds majority to convict Clinton.

    But several other Republicans, including Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and two of the Senate's most conservative members, John D. Ashcroft (Mo.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.), argued that the trial must be completed before censure is considered. "That's our constitutional responsibility," said Santorum on ABC's "This Week." The trial need not be long, however, they argued.

    As Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) saw it, there is no reason for a trial to last more than a couple of weeks. "I would like to see it done before the State of the Union address," which is scheduled for Jan. 19, he added, although he conceded that might be too optimistic.

    Ashcroft appeared to question the wisdom of censure at any point, saying the House vote to impeach was stronger than any censure the Senate might consider. "Anything else would be be, well, it would just be so much hot air," he said.

    Daschle argued just the opposite, saying censure is a "very serious, very historic and rare form of punishment."

    There was also disagreement over whether Clinton would have to say he lied under oath as part of any negotiated compromise. Most Republicans, including Hatch, said he would have to do so. But Daschle warned that "it would make our situation all the more difficult" if Republicans took a hard line on that issue. Daschle went out of his way, however, to emphasize that everything was "on the table."

    Questioned by Jesse L. Jackson on CNN's "Both Sides," Vice President Gore said the White House will not be "buttonholing senators" but will respond to senators' calls. "We will be totally respectful of the Senate's prerogatives, but information will be provided and we will be in communication with them in appropriate ways," Gore said.

    Neither Republicans nor Democrats looked favorably on a suggestion by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) that there may be other evidence that was developed but not publicly disclosed during the House proceedings that the Senate should see before it reaches a decision.

    "The evidence we ought to look at is the evidence the House used to act on the articles of impeachment. I don't think we should go beyond that," McConnell said.

    Daschle had no patience for White House hints that Clinton might challenge the legitimacy of impeachment by a lame-duck House and trial by the Senate after a new Congress convenes. "I think it would be a big mistake," said the Democratic leader. It would "delay the process" and "might politicize the environment," all without chance of success, he said.

    Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), also appearing on the NBC show, expressed concern that the "stability of the American presidency" is at stake. "We could so easily mutate into a president of the month ... where a congressional majority began routinely removing presidents, speakers become president, no one knows who is the commander-in-chief ... and the whole stability of this nation upon which the stability of the world rests could be seriously and grievously undermined."

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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