As House casts crucial vote, Senate braces for the trial Efforts are under way to short-circuit process that could take months

December 20, 1998|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, the improbable scenario of President Clinton standing trial in the Senate has become almost a reality. And it's no easier for senators than for the rest of America to come to terms with the bizarre spectacle that may lie ahead.

Monica Lewinsky could be summoned into the Senate's formal marble chamber to recount her tale of sexual touching. Defense attorneys might grill Linda R. Tripp in the well of the Senate about secretly taped girl talk. Presiding over lurid proceedings more fitting to television's Judge Judy would be the stern and somber William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States.

Most incredibly, members of the normally garrulous Senate would be required to sit as jurors through daily sessions lasting weeks or months without uttering a word, until finally Rehnquist asks each one: "Mr. Senator, how say you? Is the respondent, William Jefferson Clinton, guilty or not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors?"

"Honestly, I didn't think we'd be here with the probability now that there will be trial in the Senate," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a college friend of Clinton's who was among the first Democrats to publicly condemn the president's relationship with Lewinsky.

"I would guess most of my colleagues didn't think so either, but that's where we are. It's a very serious and largely unprecedented moment in American history, and I think all of us have to take it that way."

Efforts are already under way -- and will no doubt continue until Clinton's cause is finally won or lost -- to find a way to short-circuit a Senate trial. Most schemes envision a plea-bargain deal for Clinton: The president would accept a severe punishment -- a formal condemnation, a stiff fine, possibly loss of his federal pension and benefits -- that would spare him removal from office and spare the nation an ordeal. Former Republican leader Bob Dole recently offered his suggestion for such a

negotiated conclusion.

But Dole's successor, Trent Lott, has declared that the Senate wouldn't exercise its option to end the impeachment matter quickly with a majority vote.

"We will go to a trial, and there won't be any deal-making as we begin our job," Lott said.

Since the prospect of impeachment arose nearly a year ago, the conventional wisdom has been that regardless of what happened in the House, Clinton would escape punishment by the Senate because the 55 Republicans are 12 votes short of the two-thirds required to convict him.

The defection of a dozen Democrats remains unlikely. But it also remains unclear whether or at what point any Republican defectors would join the Democrats to produce a majority that could demand a halt to the process.

"I think what we're witnessing is the collapse of moderate Republicanism as a force," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who played a leading role in the impeachment debate.

"The same right-wing forces driving the vote in the House will insist that the trial go forward, tying up the Senate and cutting off public policy debate," he said.

Lott has said he would like to continue work on Senate business while a trial was going on, perhaps by holding the trial sessions only during afternoons. But Clinton allies among the Democrats would not be expected to help the Republicans make convenient the exercise of putting the Democratic president on trial.

The political dynamic is so fluid, though, that nothing is certain even about Clinton's Democratic support. Polls show Americans are so eager for the scandal to disappear that even some who oppose impeachment would rather have Clinton resign than put the nation through a trial.

Senate Democrats are convinced at this point that Clinton would reject any suggestion that he resign. But it's not clear how far most of them would go to spare him the indignity of a full-blown trial.

"There's a kind of inexorability to this process once it gets started," said Roger H. Davidson, a congressional expert at the University of Maryland. "Even those who consider the basis for the impeachment charges to be feeble or at least debatable find a legitimacy in the process itself with its solemn responsibilities that makes them forget what lies behind it."

In fact, most senators have avoided discussion of the charges against Clinton because of what they call their duty to sit, as jurors, in judgment upon him. Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, for example, promises he would be "unawed and uninfluenced."

Procedures for the impeachment trial would be loosely governed by musty rules not used for a president since Andrew Johnson escaped conviction and ouster by one vote 130 years ago. These rules share only superficial similarities with the rigid legal procedures that control what happens in U.S. courtrooms.

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