Senate: a Different Ballgame

The framers of the United States Constitution understood that impeaching a president and removing him from office ran contrary to the doctrine of the separation of powers. So they gave the House the power to accuse but the Senate the power to try.

With President Clinton's Dec. 19 impeachment, his case now moves to the upper chamber, the world's oldest continuing elected body. Wags might also call it the world's slowest elected body. Yet that's what the Senate was meant to be: a place to check the passions raging in the populist House and prevent legislation - or impeachments - from being stampeded through.

The House represents the people directly - members are elected every two years from districts of a similar size, in most cases quite lopsided politically. Populous states predominate.

The Senate represents the states - each gets two senators, regardless of population. Until 1913, senators were elected to their six-year terms by state legislatures rather than popular vote.

Senators' longer terms and need to appeal to a more diverse electorate tend to breed moderation. Not that all senators are moderates; far from it. But centrists in both parties have more weight in the upper chamber than in the more polarized House.

The smaller Senate's rules force members to cooperate: It takes 60 votes to end debate on a bill; a lone senator can delay or block proceedings if his or her concerns are not met.

A consensus is building that the Constitution requires senators to at least begin a trial of the president on the House charges.

But the length and result are not foreordained. The censure option, still a likely outcome, could be invoked any time by a simple majority vote (51, if all senators are present and voting) to adjourn the trial and move on to other business.

If they stick together, the 45 Democrats need only attract six Republicans to prevail. Since several GOP senators are willing to consider censure, it's not an impossible task.

Unless, that is, the White House continues the kind of tactics that alienated moderate House Republicans, ensuring Mr. Clinton's impeachment. Those tactics include legally challenging the ability of the 106th- Congress Senate to try an impeachment passed by the 105th-Congress House. Or trying to block reappointment of the House prosecutors in the new Congress, which convenes Jan. 6. Or the ongoing lack of humility seen in the president's post-impeachment rally and his continued refusal to admit he lied under oath.

The stage is set for what can be a rational assessment of the charges against the president. Senators have a duty to consider the evidence without regard to the president's party affiliation. That will ensure a result the American people can support.

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