Now it's the Senate's turn to talk censure

Prospects for a deal: Better than they were in House, but trial still likely to begin.

Rejected once, the idea of censuring the president is still being pursued as a quick, reasonable path to stability for a government rent by impeachment aftershocks.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said censure "may well be where we end up." Former Presidents Ford and Carter endorsed the idea yesterday. And President Clinton himself is still pushing the idea, inviting Congress to work with the White House on a "reasonable, bipartisan, and proportionate response."

Behind all the talk is concern about how long a trial may take. Many politicians and political analysts worry that it would divert the nation's attention from other crucial matters of business for too long. And while most senators say it is the chamber's constitutional duty to hold a trial, the fact that Senate Democrats have so far refused to abandon Clinton may push Republicans to strike a deal.

A censure deal "is in the interest not only of the president, but of the Congress and the country," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who nevertheless has doubts about the constitutionality of a censure deal.

Because a Senate trial to impeach the president hasn't been held in 130 years, no one really knows how long it would take. The estimates range from three days to four to five months - or even into the summer. Every day spent at trial is a day subtracted from the few months the Congress and White House have to push their issues agenda before election 2000 campaigning begins this September.

Meanwhile, every day at trial is also a day dominated by headlines of witnesses and perhaps tasteless testimony - right at a time when the president, especially, is trying to set the tone and agenda for the new year with his State of the Union address and new federal budget.

With censure, "you're buying time, and there's so little of it left," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution here.

An added incentive for senators is the two-thirds majority required to remove the president from office. This is a hurdle almost certainly beyond the reach of the Senate's 55 Republicans. In fact, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah is proposing a vote count at the start of the trial to decide how to proceed.

But while censure seems like a viable alternative on the face of it, the details could easily scuttle any proposed deal.

So far, Republicans have insisted the president admit he lied under oath. But Mr. Clinton is immovable on this point. This is partly because the White House fears criminal indictment for perjury once the president leaves office. But perhaps a greater reason is the president's adamant position that he did not commit perjury.

"I believe he thinks he was within the law and had no intent to commit perjury," says the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, Clinton's pastor in Washington. The president, and his aides, have said as much.

THE timing of a deal is questionable. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut is urging colleagues to start negotiating immediately on a censure option, in hopes of heading off a trial with a predictable ending. Most Republicans and several Democrats in the Senate, however, seem determined to at least start a trial, calling it a constitutional obligation.

"The Constitution says if you receive these articles [of impeachment from the House], you will have a trial," said Senate majority whip Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma. The well-respected former Senate majority leader Howard Baker, a Republican, also advocates a trial, urging the Senate to be "deliberate" and consider its role as a precedent setter.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding censure, the White House is pursuing a two-track strategy: keeping the censure idea alive but also preparing a vigorous legal defense.

One option being weighed is to mount a legal challenge to the Senate trial itself. That challenge could be based on the argument that it's unconstitutional for the Senate to take up a trial based on articles of impeachment passed by a lame-duck Congress.

But this, too, is far from a sure-fire strategy. The thesis flies in the face of a Congressional Research Service study that concluded that "an impeachment proceeding may continue from one House to the next." It also is at odds with precedents: Several judges have been impeached by the House in one Congress and tried by the Senate in the next one.

Still, with the holidays upon Washington and senators scattered all over the country, now is a time for considering options, not necessarily deciding on one. "I don't think anyone's going to do anything until the dust settles," says Mr. Mann.

It could be, say Mann and others, that the White House will wait to see how a trial shapes up. If it truly is short, as Republicans promise, it may drop the censure push altogether.

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