Moment of reckoning for Senate

Arguing over dismissal, witnesses tests veneer of comity.

By , Special correspondent of The Christian ScienceMonitor

George Washington once likened the US Senate to the saucer beneath a tea cup - ever ready to cool the boiling, overbrimming passions of the House of Representatives.

This week the usually staid, 100-member body faces a historic test of that role as it strives to prevent the political fervor that infused House impeachment proceedings against President Clinton from engulfing the Senate trial.

Party lines hardened over the weekend as senators neared a decisive juncture in the trial, with motions expected beginning today on several hotly disputed questions: whether to subpoena witnesses, open up the senators' debates, or dismiss the trial altogether.

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How well the Republican-led Senate handles these controversies will, in turn, shape the impact on the nation of the second-only presidential impeachment trial in US history. Indeed, aside from the outcome for Mr. Clinton, how Americans perceive the trial process - as impartial or as biased - is what may have a deep effect on public confidence in the US system of government.

The underlying political equation of the trial could nudge reasonable minds toward compromise: Although Republicans have a 55-to-45 majority and can thus decide many trial rules, Democrats have the numbers to block a two-thirds vote needed to convict Clinton. Two articles of impeachment charge him with perjury and obstruction of justice.

Moreover, while split over the issues, senators are united in a strong desire to maintain their body's reputation for dignified, evenhanded deliberation untainted by the kind of bare-knuckled partisanship exhibited by their House colleagues.

"Most of us will work very hard to put the pieces back together," says Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Devising an 'end game'

In a positive sign, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says he and his "new best friend" - minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota - are talking daily to resolve disagreements. Both say they hope to convene another bipartisan, Senate-wide meeting this week similar to the one Jan. 8 that produced a unanimous agreement on how to conduct the trial so far.

Meanwhile, senators eager to come up with an impeachment "end game" continued to huddle throughout the Capitol, discussing a flurry of proposals for moving ahead.

The task of the two party leaders is challenging, given the open-ended nature of the trial. Acting as jurors and judges, senators can override presiding officer Chief Justice William Rehnquist and generally set their own rules.

As the trial lurched forward last week with two days of questioning of House prosecutors and White House defense lawyers, the Senate appeared increasingly divided along party lines on several key issues.

Motion to dismiss. Senior Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, an authority on Senate rules, rallied many of his colleagues behind a motion he plans to introduce today to dismiss the trial. To attract the backing of moderate Republicans, Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana argued that it include language censuring the president for "inappropriate" and "wrong" behavior.

Yet most Republicans oppose dismissal and are confident they can block Senator Byrd's motion. Stopping the trial short of votes on the articles of impeachment would prevent the Senate - and the country - from achieving "closure," they contend.

Dismissal would be "a big mistake," said Senator Lott, calling such a move "a bobtail action of a constitutional process."

Open or closed debate. Democrats have lobbied hard for a motion to open up all Senate trial deliberations. Senate impeachment rules, which date to the 1868 trial of President Andrew Johnson, now require that all deliberations take place behind closed doors.

"The best political disinfectant is sunshine," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, calling current rules "anachronistic." "The public has a right to see how ... we reach the decisions we do."

But GOP leader Lott, while expressing reserved support for greater openness, indicated he may oppose opening the deliberations that precede a vote on impeachment articles. "[We] have to weigh that very carefully," he said.

Witnesses. Disagreement over the need for witnesses escalated yesterday as the 13 Republican House prosecutors, called "managers," pressed ahead against Democratic objections with their drive to present limited live testimony from key witnesses, including former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton friend Vernon Jordan, and secretary Betty Currie.

In addition, Lott said Republicans, taking up a White House offer, would submit today a list of questions asking for clarifications from Clinton.

Democrats and the White House counsel asserted that calling witnesses would not add any new information and would prolong the trial for months.

Talking with Ms. Lewinsky

Tensions were exacerbated when House managers prevailed on independent counsel Kenneth Starr to use his office's immunity deal with Ms. Lewinsky to force her to fly to Washington. In an informal interview scheduled yesterday, managers hoped to discern how she would testify.

Leading Democrats attacked the GOP action as a constitutionally illegitimate violation of the Senate trial procedures. "Don't politicize the process in the Senate as you've politicized it in the House," warned Senator Daschle, as he and other key Democrats sent a letter to House manager Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.

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