Key Senate Republicans rejected yesterday PresidentClinton's plea that they join him in negotiating a "reasonable" and"proportionate" response to House impeachment charges that would allow him toavoid a trial in the Senate.
But a consensus appeared to emerge among senators of both parties thatwhile a Senate trial is almost certain to begin within a month or so, theproceedings may be cut short by a deal because the 55 Republicans don't havethe two-thirds majority necessary to convict Clinton in the 100-seat chamber.
New polls show most Americans opposed Clinton's impeachment by the HouseSaturday on charges stemming from his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, andtwo-thirds of those surveyed believe he should remain in office.
But Republicans contended that they have a constitutional duty to conducta trial and that, once it begins, it could be completed quickly, within weeks.Clinton would be to blame if the proceedings drag out, they said.
Democrats countered that the president has a right to defend himself andthat a trial could take up to five months -- with the Republicans to blame forbringing the federal government to a standstill in an unpopular drive againstthe twice-elected Democratic chief executive.
Perhaps the most reliable prediction came from Sen. Arlen Specter, aPennsylvania Republican, who said nothing can be taken for granted in thehighly charged political atmosphere that has already toppled two RepublicanHouse leaders.
"When this trial starts, anything can happen, and I think that alreadywe've seen so many turns and twists in the road, and I think we're going tosee a lot more," Specter said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
"While resignation is not realistic today, a plea bargain where he'd leaveoffice is not in the cards today, stay tuned," Specter said.
Yesterday's comments reflected the confusion of a groggy morning-afterfollowing the nation's second presidential impeachment.
The impeachment votes that came almost exclusively along party lines inthe House present a delicate political problem in the Senate, which usuallycan function only with bipartisan agreement. A Senate minority -- sometimesone senator -- can freeze any action.
Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate majority whip and second-rankingRepublican, took the hardest line among more than a dozen of his colleaguesmaking television appearances yesterday, dismissing the notion ofcircumventing a Clinton trial.
"The Constitution says if you receive these articles [of impeachment], youwill have a trial," Nickles said on "Fox News Sunday."
If the 45 Democratic senators were unified in their desire to avoid atrial and able to persuade six Republicans to join them, the trial "could becircumvented," Nickles said. "But I would be very surprised."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who has already lost favor with his GOPcolleagues lately for appearing sympathetic to Clinton, argued on NBC's "Meetthe Press" that Republican leaders should consider whether conducting a trialis in the "best interests of the country" if it's already clear that Clintonwon't be convicted.
But Nickles said the likely outcome shouldn't be a consideration.
"Let's get the facts out quickly," Nickles said. "And if he's not going tobe convicted, so be it."
Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who, like Nickles,reflects the views of the conservative Republicans driving the impeachmentprocess, similarly dismissed the notion a speedy plea bargain.
"At some point on down the road, the solution that [Clinton and Democraticsenators have] suggested may well be where we end up, but I don't see anyconstitutional alternative to going forward," McConnell said on "Meet thePress."
McConnell said it might also be possible to spare the country frompotentially lurid testimony from Lewinsky and other witnesses by shutting offthe television cameras and retreating into closed sessions.
"This will not be a spectacle," McConnell promised. "It will not demeanthe Senate. I think we will carry out our constitutional duty and it will behandled in a bipartisan way all along the path to conclusion."
Despite Clinton's appeal for a negotiated settlement shortly after theHouse approved two articles of impeachment against him Saturday, one of thepresident's top lawyers said on "Fox News Sunday" that the White House ispreparing for a trial.
"We are confident both on the law and on the facts that we can defend thepresident," said Gregory B. Craig, a longtime Clinton friend who joined theWhite House team in September to try to head off the impeachment vote.
"He did not serve the nation well" in his illicit relationship withLewinsky, Craig acknowledged. "But I don't think he should be removed for thatconduct."
Craig said the White House is seeking advice from a number of Senateelders, such as former Democratic Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, themediator in Northern Ireland peace talks who might lend his skills to aClinton plea bargain. Deals floated so far usually call for Clinton to agreeto a large fine and a loss of government benefits.
The White House has not decided on the details of its trial strategy, suchas whether to call witnesses, Craig said, because it is waiting to see a "billof particulars" from the House, which would include more specific allegationsagainst Clinton than are in the articles of impeachment.
Among the variables that could influence the duration and result of aClinton trial is public opinion, which so far seems to remain on Clinton'sside.
An NBC poll taken Saturday showed Clinton's approval rating rose after thevote to 72 percent from 68 percent, while 62 percent said the president shouldserve out his term -- an 11 percentage point rise from a poll taken Tuesday.
A CBS/New York Times poll taken Saturday found that 66 percent of thosesurveyed thought Clinton should remain in office -- a slight drop from 69percent before the vote.
That same two-thirds majority said they didn't think Clinton's resignationwould help the country.
It's not clear how those numbers might be affected by a lengthy and bitterSenate trial. Clinton's defenders are hoping that senators of both partiesfind it in their interest to short-circuit the process.
"There is extraordinary solidarity among Democrats in the Senate andincreasingly a desire among some Republicans in the Senate to have this matterended," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. Speaking onCBS' "Face the Nation," Torricelli said he knew of no Democrats who would voteto convict Clinton.
Even so, there was no talk yesterday that Clinton might get off scot-free.
"I believe that if [the Republicans] decided that the trial is going toend, it is going to be with some form of censure," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy,a Vermont Democrat.
Today, former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were to propose abipartisan censure resolution to be voted on by the Senate to quickly end theimpeachment process. Their proposal, to appear on the Op-Ed page of today'sNew York Times, would require Clinton to publicly acknowledge that he liedunder oath.
Clinton has expressed a willingness to accept a censure resolution, but hehas been adamantly opposed to saying that he lied under oath.