The Senate listens to History

The United States Senate and its leaders, Sens. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, were sorely tested last week. Trying to hammer out a procedure for a fair and dignified trial of President Clinton, senators for a moment peered into the abyss of partisan rancor.

To their credit, they backed away and made a last minute, successful attempt to unite. Gathered in a rare bipartisan caucus in the historic Old Senate Chamber, senators worked out a compromise worthy of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who struggled in that room to hold the Union together in the 19th century.

Like Clay and Webster, today's senators postponed, rather than resolved, the main issue. In this case it was whether to call witnesses in the trial, which House prosecutors insist they need, and which the White House fervently opposes. The Senate agreed that each side will present its case from the public record. Then House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and colleagues can move to call witnesses. The White House or any senator could also then move to dismiss the case.

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The witness dispute is convoluted and the president's lawyers have tried to have it both ways. In the House impeachment hearings, they criticized Mr. Hyde for calling no witnesses; yet when they had the opportunity they called none themselves. Democrats ask why House prosecutors need witnesses now when they needed none in the House. Hyde and Co. answer that witnesses are necessary during a trial, but not in a pretrial proceeding.

Two things are clear: (1) the White House desperately wants to avoid witnesses; and (2) House prosecutors know they don't have the two-thirds vote they will need to gain conviction and removal, and see live testimony as their only hope of changing minds.

Mr. Hyde has an uphill struggle, however. To call any witnesses he will have to make a solid case that issues raised in the articles of impeachment can't be decided without testimony -- and get 51 senators to agree. Even many Republicans are not eager to put Ms. Lewinsky in the well of the Senate to detail the president's relationship with her.

But there are other areas where evidence is contradictory, especially concerning the obstruction-of-justice charges. Here Ms. Lewinsky, Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, and others may need to explain to senators their versions of how gifts were hidden and job-search assistance was given.

Senators have taken an oath to render impartial justice. They will best uphold the dignity of the chamber of which they are so proud by giving both sides a fair hearing. In that regard, the fewer public statements they make regarding the evidence they are hearing, the better, until the case is over.

Now, Senators Lott and Daschle must continue to show courageous leadership. The Senate must avoid partisan bickering as the trial unfolds. Last week's compromise and good will, and the pull of history, have got the upper chamber off to a good start.

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