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Byrd Cites Possibility of Avoiding Senate Trial

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  • By Dan Balz and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 22, 1998; Page A1

    Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), an influential authority on the history and procedures of the Senate, yesterday opened the door to a compromise resolution of the impeachment of President Clinton, but pointedly warned the White House not to try to broker a censure deal.

    Byrd's statement came as former Presidents Gerald R. Ford (R) and Jimmy Carter (D) lent their prestige to finding a speedy conclusion to the constitutional drama unfolding in Washington by urging the Senate to censure the president, rather than put the country through a lengthy and divisive trial.

    Republican senators, meanwhile, continued to keep their own counsel about how to resolve the impeachment issue, although some senior members, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said the Senate should avoid a trial – the second in U.S. history – if it is clear there are not enough votes to remove Clinton from office.

    At the White House, officials continued to denounce the House for approving two articles of impeachment on Saturday, but more urgently turned their attention to the Senate phase of the battle.

    Officials there outlined a two-track strategy that calls for an aggressive legal defense of the president in any Senate trial that might occur while attempting to encourage a bipartisan compromise that results in censuring the president for failing to tell the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    Byrd's written statement yesterday was seen as significant because he is a stickler for the rules and prerogatives of the Senate and because many Republicans were looking to him for procedural guidance on impeachment. The West Virginian's language, while not precluding the need for a Senate trial to resolve the question of whether Clinton is allowed to remain in office, appeared to give encouragement to those calling for the president to be censured. The statement left open the possibility of censure before a trial starts or once a trial begins.

    "To a very large degree, we are now navigating in previously uncharted waters, but one thing is clear," Byrd said. "For the good of our nation, there must be no 'deal' involving the White House or any entity beyond the current membership of the U.S. Senate."

    But Byrd, a former Senate majority leader, went on to say, "Whether there is a trial or whether there is some other solution, that decision must be made by senators, and it must be bipartisan or it will have absolutely no credibility with the public."

    White House officials regarded Byrd's statement as a positive development. "We agree that the best solution for this matter would be made by senators and on a bipartisan basis," said White House spokesman Jim Kennedy. "We hope that such a resolution can be reached expeditiously so that we can get back to the business of the country as soon as possible."

    Exactly how a compromise could be achieved with no real involvement by the White House was not clear, given the reality that most censure proposals call for some acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the president. But White House officials said they agreed with Byrd's judgment. "They have to work among themselves, as Sen. Byrd rightly pointed out, and come forward with something the body as a group can support," a senior official said.

    Ford and Carter outlined their censure proposal in a jointly written statement published on the Op-Ed page of yesterday's New York Times. "We believe the time has come to put aside political difference and plant seeds of justice and reconciliation," they wrote.

    Under the Ford-Carter plan, Clinton would be required to acknowledge that "he did not tell the truth under oath" in exchange for a pledge that that admission could not be used against him if he is later prosecuted for perjury. They also raised the possibility of having independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr announce that his office would not bring charges against the president after he leaves the White House.

    White House officials praised the Ford-Carter article for its eloquence, but refused to indicate whether Clinton would agree its terms.

    Meanwhile, four House Republicans who voted to impeach Clinton wrote Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) yesterday, urging that the Senate consider censure as an alternative to removal from office.

    Reps. Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), Michael N. Castle (Del.), Benjamin A. Gilman (N.Y.) and James C. Greenwood (Pa.) said they voted for impeachment in the House because they believed that Clinton lied under oath and that his conduct was "serious enough" to merit such action. But "we are not convinced and do not want our votes interpreted to mean that we view removal from office as the only reasonable conclusion to this case," they wrote.

    Vice President Gore restated the White House's desire for "a fair, bipartisan compromise to end this matter promptly." But he lashed out anew at House Republicans for approving two articles of impeachment. "I believe that Saturday's vote in the U.S. House of Representatives was wrong," he said. "Wrong for our Constitution and wrong for America."

    Gore's public posture underscored the belief of White House officials that playing to public opinion remains one of their strongest weapons in bringing about a speedy resolution of the impeachment issue.

    Clinton's job approval rating hit 73 percent in polls for both CNN/USA Today/Gallup and for CBS News and the New York Times. An NBC News survey put his approval rating at 72 percent, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed it at 67 percent. The polls showed the public has a highly unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party and a positive view of the Democratic Party.

    Beyond capitalizing on the power of public opinion, White House officials were still making decisions about how to help nurture the climate for censure while readying themselves for a Senate trial if that fails. They also were discussing whether to rearrange the team of players responsible for dealing with the issue in the Senate, including possible additional responsibilities for former Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).

    Suggestions that the White House might challenge the legitimacy of impeachment by a lame-duck Congress drew a negative response among Senate Democratic leaders.

    Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) had no comment, but earlier he denounced what he described as "legal hair-splitting" by Clinton's lawyers and a Senate Democratic strategist said that challenging the House vote falls in the same category. "There's a desire to get the process started and completed as soon as possible," the aide said.

    The Byrd statement underscored the delicate nature of the next phase of the struggle. In the House, the White House and Democratic allies mounted a broad, grass-roots effort to lobby members – although it was unsuccessful with moderate Republicans. But White House officials acknowledge that members of the Senate might balk at such tactics.

    "The Senate's a different place than the House – the way it does its business, the culture, the members," one senior official said. "It's a very personal institution in the way the members conduct their affairs. Carpet-bombing indiscriminate senators is not the most effective way to deal with them."

    Some Republicans had indicated there may be no way to avoid a Senate trial, and Byrd's statement may have caught them by surprise. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on NBC's "Today" show yesterday that "Senate is going to take its cues" from Byrd. "We believe that Senator Byrd believes that we have to go on and deal with this in terms of an impeachment trial," he added.

    Hatch said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that said he believes the Senate is obliged to move to a trial. But he added that, at some early point, the Senate must determine whether 67 senators would vote to convict the president. "If you clearly can't do that, then it's apparent that we should not spend the next, you know, two to six months trying this matter," he said."

    House Judiciary aides plan to meet with Senate aides and White House lawyers to discuss how to proceed with the trial; according to one source, the session could take place as soon as "in the next day or two."

    The first step in the Senate phase of impeachment will begin on or about Jan. 6, when the 106th Congress convenes. The secretary of the Senate will inform the House it is ready to receive the managers, who would come to the Senate, read the impeachment articles and depart. Next comes the notification of Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and a request for his presence.

    The Senate would instruct the sergeant at arms to issues a summons to the president, including the articles of impeachment and a time limit for a formal response – probably 30 days. The House managers would respond to the White House response, and the White House would have one more chance to answer – all within clear time limits.

    It appears, that at the time of the summons, the Senate could consider whether to stop the proceedings to take up something else like censure, or it could wait to deal with such a resolution at a later point in the trial.

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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