Trial to test temperate US Senate

A bipartisan plan is emerging, but many unsettled issues may yetpolarize senators.

Judicious. Delib-erate. Full of independent thinkers.

These are attributes of the United States Senate, the venue for Bill Clinton's impeachment trial - the first of a US president since 1868.

As senators return to Washington this week to prepare for the trial, it's these characteristics that lead many analysts to forecast a less partisan, more moderate atmosphere than the fractious one that prevailed last month in the House of Representatives.

Moreover, against this backdrop of Senate moderation, the final act of this presidential drama may brighten considerably for Mr. Clinton. Many experts see him battle-scarred but remaining in office - though perhaps enduring a stern rebuke from lawmakers.

Over the holidays, majority leader Trent Lott and minority leader Tom Daschle talked daily - and worked the phones with their far-flung caucuses to float a bipartisan plan for the trial. Under the plan, designed by moderate Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, senators would hear opening arguments in the case, but then vote on whether to proceed to a full-blown trial. A two-thirds vote would be required to move forward. If that failed, a motion to censure could be introduced.

That's not to say all in the Senate are happy with the plan, especially on the Republican right.

Senators traditionally are independent-minded, and "organizing them is like herding cats," says Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation here. This independence fosters a climate in which "the only thing that's predictable is unpredictability," he says.

Besides senators' independent streaks, major unresolved issues concerning the trial may yet cause the traditional atmosphere of moderation to evaporate. Indeed, House leaders began their inquiry amid the sunshine of cooperation, only to have it dissipate once the proceedings actually got under way.

Among key questions yet to be considered: Should a trial be quick, with no witnesses? Or should it allow for witnesses, in which case it could turn in unexpected ways and prolong the whole process. What about censure - should it be an option? If so, what should a censure motion say?

It's on these issues, which do not necessarily break along party lines, that the Senate's independent cats could dart away from the GOP's Mr. Lott and the Democrats' Mr. Daschle, though Lott will have a harder time unifying his splintered caucus than Daschle will have with his unified one.

Still, given the finality of the Senate's decision either to convict and remove Clinton or to acquit him, bipartisanship is now more likely to stick, analysts say.

"If anyone brings [impeachment] greater deliberation and caution, it's going to be the Senate," says Michael Gerhardt, a specialist on impeachment at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

A host of reasons argue for a moderate tone in the Senate. Regarding impeachment itself, senators must meet a higher threshold: A two-thirds majority is required to convict the president in the Senate, while only a simple majority of House members was able to impeach him.

Many senators have also watched with dismay the partisanship that wracked the House - and the public's negative reaction to it. They are mindful, too, of the public's rebuke of the do-nothing Congress and are wary of launching a long trial that will prevent them from accomplishing their agenda this year.

Compared with the largely impersonal institution of the 435-member House, the Senate is a smaller, some say clubby, group of 100 members. Senators, which represent whole states rather than an ideologically clear congressional district, have more leeway in how they vote.

STILL, senators will be mindful of whether their states went for Clinton in the 1996 election. A group of moderate Republicans in mostly Democratic New England, for instance, is worth watching, says Richard Semiatin, a political scientist at American University here.

If Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, for example, were to come out for conviction, "he would probably get smothered in Ben & Jerry's ice cream" by angry Democrats, says Mr. Semiatin.

Then there's Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine. She has come out in favor of allowing House prosecutors ("managers") to present witnesses in a trial. This is the position of several conservative Republicans, who are pushing hard for a full trial.

Scuttling the Lott-Daschle plan, however, won't be easy. The usual tool of disruption - the art of endless debate, or filibuster - is not allowed under impeachment rules, says a Senate aide familiar with the rules.

Moreover, Lott and Daschle are expected to protect their plan by introducing it as a motion that can be amended, but not debated. If anyone objects, he or she would need a majority vote to amend the plan - not something the 30 or so conservative Republicans are likely to muster.

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