Search for the exit door

As the saga of President Clinton's impeachment winds inexorably toward a conclusion, the search is on for an ending, a final dotting of "i's" and crossing of "t's", that will satisfy all parties.

Mr. Clinton, it is now clear, will not be removed from office, barring an unforeseen bombshell in witness testimony. Now the Senate, the House Republican prosecutors, and the White House are playing for the history books. At week's end, various senators were trying to craft the perfect censure resolution.

"They're desperately trying to find a 'happy ending,' which means showing the public they're tough but not removing him from office," says James Thurber, a presidential scholar at American University here. "That means coming out with a censure of some sort. There's probably a hundred plans floating around up there."

Some Republicans have even toyed with a plan to find the president guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice but not remove him from office. This approach isn't being considered anymore, but the fact that it even surfaced shows the lengths to which the Senate is going to try to end the impeachment drama in just the right way.

Since the words "Monica Lewinsky" entered the national vocabulary last January, it has been an extraordinary year. The question now is how to end it in a way that leaves everyone, if not happy, at least satisfied that they got a fair shake.

Frowns all around

On one level, say observers, no one will be completely happy when it's all over. Clinton's supporters, crying political witch hunt, say there should never have been an impeachment in the first place. The president's critics will cry they weren't allowed to prosecute their case to the fullest extent possible and that Clinton is, metaphorically speaking, getting away with murder.

Perhaps only the American people - telling pollsters for months that they liked the job Clinton was doing and wanted the impeachment story to end - will be happy when Chief Justice William Rehnquist lowers the final gavel on the Senate trial. But on a more immediate level, analysts say, all those involved in the impeachment will be able to claim that they achieved something in the process. When the president is acquitted, as expected, he and the White House will be able to claim a partial victory.

The House prosecutors will be able to point out that they got the Senate to conduct a full trial, with witnesses, that led to an up-or-down vote on guilt or innocence. The Senate can claim that it pulled Washington back from the brink of a partisan meltdown and gave respectful consideration to the efforts of the House managers.

Also happy will be the GOP rank and file. "There will be a great surge of excitement about getting back to issues they like to talk about," says Rich Galen of the GOP political-action committee GOPAC. "There has not been a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution has been followed," Mr. Galen adds. "It has been a very painful process, but it must be painful, so people don't do this with alacrity. And if the Republican Party suffers a temporary downturn, that will be a good warning to Democrats for the future: Don't get into this lightly, my friends."

David Tell, editorial writer for the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, agrees that at this point, the highest good is a strict following of the Constitution. And that means senators shouldn't be talking about censure resolutions. "He's not going to be convicted, so he should be acquitted," says Mr. Tell. "That's it."

But he disagrees that conducting a complete trial was the best course, even though he does believe Clinton is guilty. "There comes a point when formalism is damaged by its pursuit," he says. "Let's face it, we pretty much know what they [the witnesses] are going to say, and they're not going to say anything all that interesting."

The end is in sight, maybe

Though no firm timetable had been agreed to by press time, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi suggested the trial could be completed by Feb. 12. That would allow time for the final acts to play out: depositions of the three witnesses (Ms. Lewinsky, White House aide Sydney Blumenthal, and Clinton friend Vernon Jordan), the calling of any witnesses by the White House, and a 15-minute closing statement by each senator.

For the sake of posterity, Clinton friend Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, hopes that not even a simple majority of senators will vote to convict the president. (A two-thirds majority is required for conviction.)

For a majority to acquit, several Republicans would have to break ranks. Overall, in his 33 years in Washington, Mr. From says, "I've never seen this kind of rank partisanship."

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