In Senate, Clinton may be in for wild ride

It appears as if the historic impeachment trial of President Clinton will be more complex and unpredictable than many senators had anticipated.

Days of uncertainty about the format of the trial - which officially opens today - hint at problems to come. If it's this hard to produce a consensus on how to proceed, what will happen when senators are faced with further difficult decisions on questions of legal substance?

Senators of both sides are making a concerted effort to remain civil. But so did members of the House, at first.

If comity breaks down, the result could be a careening process with high risks for both the Senate GOP majority and the endangered president.

"It is slipping into a partisan struggle for the rules," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here. "It's unfortunate."

At time of writing the debate over the procedures of the trial had not been settled. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of MIssissippi appeared to be backing away from a bipartisan call for a short trial held without calling witnesses.

Call witnesses?

A majority of senators would likely prefer to avoid the spectacle of calling ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky to the Senate and cross-examining her about the physical nature of her relationship with the president. Thus the "no witnesses" proposal, put together by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Slade Gorton (R) of Washington initially drew support from many Senate factions.

The witness-no witness decision is a crucial one, said Senator Lieberman. "Once you bring in one witness, the dam is broken" and the process may lurch out of control.

But many conservatives have objected to the truncated approach. House impeachment managers have insisted they want a full trial, with a slate of witnesses, and some Republican senators say it is their constitution duty to hold extended proceedings.

Even some experts who believe Mr. Clinton should not have been impeached by the House say a short trial risks looking like an insider deal cut in a smoke-filled room, and could damage the institution of the presidency.

That is because an easy end to the process could lessen the seriousness of the House impeachment vote.

"Future Houses could take the position, behind the scenes, that they want to restrain the current president, and impeachment is a great way to do it, and if we go too far the Senate will make it go away," says Peter Shane, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

To this point, little in the Lewinsky matter has gone quicker or more easily than expected. That would indicate that a longer trial is most likely to be the procedure adopted, said some experts.

Conservatives have also tended to get their way in the impeachment process, at least so far. That's another reason to believe that March could roll around, and the Senate trial could still be in session.

How tight the grip?

But the GOP's grip on Senate proceedings might turn out to be relatively tenuous. A majority vote could stop, or change, the trial at any time, points out Mr. Thurber. That could happen with only a handful of Republican defections, since the chamber's balance of power is 55 GOP seats to 45 Democrats.

"If a simple majority does not want witnesses there won't be witnesses," says Thurber. "Six Republicans and all the Democrats can change the rules."

Conversely, a group of conservatives dissatisfied with the proceedings might launch a filibuster to prevent a vote that would censure Clinton. Such a halt in proceedings would take only 40 senators - and Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire has indicated he would seriously consider this parliamentary move to block any prospective censure.

Still, even many conservatives say they want the Senate's second-ever trial of an impeached president to move expeditiously.

"I think we can get this done in January," says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

And others say that even an argumentative trial that breaks down along partisan lines would not constitute a serious national crisis. "This is a serious moment and a potentially disruptive moment, but we've been through wars, depressions, we've survived them and we are in good shape today," says Lieberman.

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