Byrd to call for end to trial

Taken by surprise, Senate steps up hunt for a quick way out

Dismissal motion expected

Senior Democrat had been seen likely to vote to oust Clinton

January 23, 1999|By Karen Hosler and Paul West | Karen Hosler and Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a surprise development, the Senate's senior and most respected Democrat called yesterday for an early end to the impeachment trial of President Clinton, setting off a new flurry of activity by senators to devise an exit strategy.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd said he plans to make a formal motion, probably Monday, to dismiss the charges against Clinton.

The 81-year-old West Virginian said he had concluded that the votes needed to convict the president "are not there" and are unlikely to develop.

Byrd's motion isn't expected to gain enough Republican support to succeed.

But his view that continuing the trial would be both pointless and harmful to the nation is likely to add fresh impetus to the search for a swift and graceful way out.

"Lengthening this trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited upon our nation," Byrd declared.

"I see a motion to dismiss as the best way to promptly end this sad and sorry time for our country."

A former Senate majority leader, Byrd has a legendary reputation for independence and is watched closely by fellow senators in both parties.

Months ago, in a stern warning aimed at the White House, he admonished Clinton not to"tamper" with the impeachment jury in the Senate.

He had been considered to be one of the Democrats most likely to side with Republicans on a vote to remove the president from office.

Byrd's announcement, delivered in the form of a news release, caught members of both parties off-guard, even though a vote on a motion to dismiss the case was specifically permitted under terms of a bipartisan agreement approved Jan. 8.

After making his decision public at midafternoon, Byrd vanished from the Senate floor for the rest of the day.

But his one-page statement continued to be passed around the Senate floor for hours afterward. Soon after getting word of Bryd's plan, dumbfounded Republican senators hustled into a hasty strategy session with Majority Leader Trent Lott during a break in the trial.

"I was simply stunned when I learned that he was going to sponsor this," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican.

Rooted in impatience

House Republican prosecutors, who have been losing ground steadily for several days, angrily charged that the drive to dismiss the case was rooted in the Senate's impatience with the trial.

"By dismissing the articles of impeachment before you have a full trial, you are sending a terrible message to the people of the country," Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is leading the prosecution, told the senators.

Democrats said they were encouraged by Byrd's decision to offer the dismissal motion because he had said before the trial that he could "vote either way" on whether to remove Clinton.

"I think he is the best person in the Senate to offer this motion," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the second-ranking Democrat.

But several conservative Republicans rushed to television microphones to challenge Byrd's reasoning.

"We should not be voting to dismiss the case because we think the votes aren't there to convict, or for the convenience of the Senate or because we are troubled by the idea of certain witnesses in the well of the Senate," said Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.

Kyl argued that the Senate has a duty to vote on whether to convict Clinton on the two articles of impeachment. He hinted that Byrd was trying to avoid casting that vote.

White House reticent

The White House had little to say about Byrd's decision.

"Our position is clear," said James Kennedy, a Clinton spokesman. "We favor a fair, bipartisan and expeditious resolution of this whole matter."

Byrd, who has been harshly critical of Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky, said his decision should not be interpreted to mean that he believes the president "did no wrong."

Clinton "has caused his family, his friends and this nation great pain," Byrd said, and "has weakened the already fragile public trust that has been placed in his care."

But Byrd said he saw no point in extending the trial to the next step in the process -- calling witnesses. He said witness testimony would not add "anything of consequence to this process."

A Senate divided

The Senate is divided on the question of calling witnesses, which can be approved only by a majority vote. A decision on whether to take additional testimony is scheduled to be made next week, unless senators agree on a different arrangement.

Republican senators plan to meet at 9 a.m. today to plot their next move, before the full Senate convenes at 10 a.m. for a second, and presumably final, day of questions for the two sides in the trial.

Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, warned the Senate yesterday that it could take "many months" to conclude the trial if senators vote to take testimony from witnesses.

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