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Prospects Dim for Avoiding Long Clinton Trial

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A1

    Despite efforts by its leaders to avoid the partisanship of the House, the Senate is beginning to break along party lines over how to proceed with the impeachment trial of President Clinton, according to interviews with more than 40 senators.

    Many of the Republicans interviewed over the past several days say they favor a full trial, complete with testimony from Monica S. Lewinsky and a raft of other high-profile witnesses, and seem lukewarm at best to censure as an alternative. "We're gonna walk, we ain't gonna run" through the process, said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

    Democrats, by contrast, largely favor censure -- arguing that it would be virtually impossible to muster the necessary two-thirds majority needed to convict Clinton -- and are looking for a way to abbreviate the Senate impeachment proceedings.

    Taken together, the conflicting views of the Republicans and Democrats suggest that the Senate may be embarking on a protracted and messy trial with high risks for the Republican majority as well as for the impeached president.

    Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Senate GOP leaders fear that a prolonged trial could prove costly to the Republicans in the 2000 elections. But Lott also is coming under strong pressure from conservatives in his party to abandon a plan for an expedited trial of Clinton on charges he obstructed justice and perjured himself over his relations with Lewinsky.

    Most of the Republicans who have spoken out in recent days say they favor a full trial. And the momentum within the party is clearly against a plan floated by Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.); the two propose condensing Clinton's trial into a few days and then holding a test vote on whether the two articles of impeachment approved by the House warrant Clinton's removal from office.

    At least 20 of the 55 Republicans in the Senate -- mostly, but not all, conservatives -- say they oppose the Gorton-Lieberman plan. Because many of the other GOP senators are keeping quiet about their views, it remained unclear last night whether Lott can find support within the Republican caucus for some other version of an expedited trial. Lott has said he will proceed with a plan only if it receives support from at least half of the Republicans.

    Many Republicans who have spoken out argue that by short-circuiting the process, senators would be shirking their constitutional duty to pass judgment on the House impeachment action. Even Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a moderate leader, indicated he might favor a trial with witnesses, provided he was given assurance that the witness list would be limited and the trial would be kept under tight control.

    "This is obviously very serious business," Chafee said. "With no witnesses it seems to me it's quite a limitation on a very serious proceeding."

    However, many Democrats support the Gorton-Lieberman proposal -- or some variation of it -- as a clever way out of a political and constitutional thicket.

    "The basic thrust of the plan makes a good deal of sense, which is to do what you do in a courtroom, which is moving for summary judgment or dismissal," said Sen.-elect Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Even if you assume all of the facts, does it rise to the level of impeachment? It's something that is done in courtrooms every single day. It's part of our legal system and there's no reason it shouldn't be done here."

    Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) are hoping that a consensus on how to proceed begins to emerge from the Republican and Democratic caucuses that are scheduled to begin this morning.

    But as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) cautioned yesterday, "We've got 100 folks, all of whom are fairly strong personalities, very thoughtful, and we all understand this is an extraordinarily serious event . . . and I don't think anybody wants to rush it."

    Among many of the Republicans returning to Washington, feelings run high that a full trial of Clinton is necessary to preserve the integrity of Congress. "If the nation has a highly cynical view of Congress, it will be worse if we short-circuited the mandate," said Burns, the Montana conservative.

    Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said the impending trial was the predominant topic of conversation at three town meetings he chaired in his home state on Monday. "The people don't want a short-circuited process," he said. "They like the idea of a trial, and then for us to vote our conscience."

    Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a senior Republican from Missouri, said of the Gorton-Lieberman plan: "I don't think that dog will hunt. We have a constitutional duty to hear the best case of both sides. We need to be judicious, deliberative and fair."

    Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he favors a modified version of Gorton-Lieberman that would require a simple majority vote, rather than two-thirds of those present, to go forward with a trial. In his view, a trial with witnesses is needed because key facts remain in dispute. For example, he said, he is troubled by differences in how Lewinsky and Clinton testified before a federal grand jury about the nature of their relationship, a point at the heart of the House's perjury charge.

    Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a leading moderate, also has said he prefers a trial with witnesses, casting doubt on the ability of the GOP leadership to muster support for an expedited solution.

    Specter has publicly called for a trial and suggested that it could be limited to "a few key witnesses and a few key lines of questioning." He also has been adamant about the need for the president's testimony.

    Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said the House-appointed "managers" and the White House must be granted broad latitude in presenting their cases, and that means they must have adequate time.

    DeWine said the Senate "would be judged not on how long the trial takes but on whether the American people think justice has been done."

    Until now, mostly the opponents of the Gorton-Lieberman plan have spoken out while other conservatives and moderates have kept their own counsel, awaiting an opportunity to confer in depth with their colleagues and Senate leaders.

    For example, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a conservative, has had little to say publicly about the matter. But an aide said Bennett believes Gorton-Lieberman is a "good way to take the temperature" of the Senate on how to proceed.

    Also, Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have expressed at least qualified support for the plan. More support may surface in the next day or two, although last night senators were already floating other ideas for a limited, but lengthier, trial than contemplated by Lieberman and Gorton.

    Selling the idea of censure as an alternative to conviction of Clinton may be much harder to do within the GOP. Echoing the position taken by many House Republicans, many of the GOP senators interviewed this week argued that a toughly worded censure resolution -- including a possible fine agreed to by Clinton -- would be unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent.

    Gregg of New Hampshire, who opposes the Gorton-Lieberman approach, yesterday offered a blistering critique of censure at a Capitol Hill news conference.

    "Impeachment is the constitutional action available to the Congress, not censure," he said. "The precedent of censure, especially one agreed to by a president under the threat of impeachment, could dramatically rework two centuries of evolution of authority in our nation."

    Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) declared: "The only thing we can do as an impeachment body is vote guilty or not guilty. Doing anything else doesn't fulfill the constitutional process."

    But the Democrats see it all much differently.

    Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he favors a mini-trial and test vote, followed by a censure resolution containing a reprimand or fine or a combination of both, but not requiring Clinton to sign.

    The Gorton-Lieberman proposal is "an excellent one, comparable to a preliminary hearing in a criminal case which binds the case over for trial" and which establishes or fails to establish sufficient cause for a full trial, he said.

    "In the last few days there have been a lot of potshots by Republicans who want a full-blown trial," Reid said. "The Republicans seem to be having trouble keeping their eye on the prize. My concern is that this could wind up as the kind of partisan proceeding there was in the House. The Senate has the ability to show that we can do things on a truly bipartisan basis, to work out this difficult situation."

    Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) agreed, saying, "As in any trial, a motion ought to be put asking the question of whether the charges meet a threshold requirement."

    If Gorton-Lieberman fails, he said, "I see an increased likelihood that this process will take on the partisanship that characterized the House proceedings."

    Staff writers Donald P. Baker, William Claiborne, Helen Dewar, Spencer S. Hsu, Bill McAllister, John Mintz, Dan Morgan, Terry M. Neal and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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