Senators Seeking Way to Avoid Long Impeachment Trial


Senators intensified their search Sunday for a formula to resolve the impeachment charges against President Clinton without the need for a potentially long, divisive and unpredictable trial.

But virtually every option--from a full-dress Senate trial to a quick vote to drop the charges--would face significant opposition from one or another faction within the Senate, thus greatly enhancing the odds that a trial will at least begin in January.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is close to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), insisted that it was the Senate’s “constitutional obligation” to start a trial.

But Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) argued that the Constitution did not require a trial. “There are other remedies. The appropriate and proper penalty is a strong censure resolution condemning his actions, making him acknowledge it, making him sign it,” said Breaux, who is seen on Capitol Hill as a potential deal-maker.


The House, climaxing an exceptionally divisive confrontation between Republicans and Democrats, approved two articles of impeachment Saturday accusing Clinton of lying under oath and obstructing justice in the investigation of his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

The next step in the impeachment process is a trial in which the 100 senators are the jurors and a two-thirds majority, 67 senators, is required to convict the president and expel him from office.

Republicans, who will hold 55 Senate seats next session, would need at least 12 Democratic votes; the articles of impeachment attracted at most five of the 206 House Democrats in Saturday’s voting. And as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) acknowledged Sunday, some of the Republicans in the Senate would probably not vote against Clinton.

With the impeachment focus shifting to the Senate, many of the dozen senators who spoke publicly Sunday promised to set aside the partisanship that has riven the House and repelled much of the electorate. “This is a time for us to shed Republican and Democratic labels, at least for a while, and come together,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Yet most senators seemed to favor rallying around their own approach and no one else’s, suggesting that even the weeks before the Senate returns to work on Jan. 6 and receives the articles of impeachment could prove highly contentious.

The most widely discussed alternative to a trial is a congressional censure resolution condemning Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky and his attempts to cover it up. There would almost surely be considerable disagreement, however, over how harsh the language should be.

And a censure resolution has considerably more Democratic adherents than Republican ones. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), appearing on “Face the Nation” on CBS-TV, called censure “not worth a tinker’s damn” because the Constitution does not explicitly provide for it.

If a majority of 51 senators could agree on censure language, they could approve it and--at least according to some--stop the trial.

“At any point a majority of senators can decide to terminate the trial,” Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said Sunday. He added that his private discussions about this subject with senators on both sides of the aisle have been “very encouraging.”

Clinton has indicated his willingness to accept a congressional rebuke. And even McConnell, while insisting that a trial must begin, said it could be terminated short of a verdict.

“At some point on down the road, the [censure] solution . . . may well be where we end up,” McConnell said. “But I don’t see any constitutional alternative to going forward.”

Specter has proposed a different alternative to a trial: that Clinton face criminal prosecution after he leaves office. On Sunday, he suggested another way to avoid a trial: Clinton’s resignation.

Specter said only members of Clinton’s own party could change his mind. “It may be up to some of the giants in the Senate who are Democrats to go to the president and, in effect, tell him that he has to resign,” Specter said.

Immediately after the House impeachment votes, however, Clinton vowed to remain in office until “the last hour of the last day of my term.”

And Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) said Senate Democrats were “extraordinarily” united in their desire to see Clinton complete his final two years in office. Torricelli said he spoke with Clinton late Saturday and came away convinced he would not quit because “he knows at the end of the day, he is not going to be removed from office.”

The prospect of a trial is already fueling controversy over the rules of procedure.

A protracted dispute could arise over whether to call witnesses such as Lewinsky, as some senators have said they may do. As Breaux put it: “Does the country really need to know more about what Monica Lewinsky did and when she did it and how she did it? I think not.”

McConnell, chairman of the Senate committee that wrote the rules governing impeachment trials, argued on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” that the public spectacle of taking lurid testimony from Lewinsky could be avoided by holding such a session behind closed doors.

But other senators, including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), denounced that notion, likening it to a “star chamber.”

(C-SPAN2 announced Sunday that it would provide “live, gavel-to-gavel coverage” should there be a trial. The public affairs channel is available to 52.7 million households.)

Another looming controversy is whether the Senate would conduct other business for one part of the day while holding the trial during another.

McConnell suggested that the Senate could conduct public business even while trying the president. But many Senate Democrats already have signaled privately that they will strenuously oppose any “dual track” Senate calendar, arguing that the ouster of a chief executive must receive the Senate’s undivided attention.

A Senate trial, if one is held, is widely expected to begin soon after the Senate convenes next month, although the president’s lawyers could immediately ask for 30 days to prepare their formal response to the articles of impeachment.

Estimates of the trial’s length have ranged from “several days” (Lott) to “a year or more” (Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee).

The only issue that senators of all stripes could agreed on Sunday was the fact that the Senate itself will also be on trial.

“I think we can find a solution that will satisfy . . . ,” Leahy said. “But I think it is probably going to be the greatest test the Senate’s faced in this century.”

But once a trial begins, Specter said, all bets are off. “Anything can happen,” he said. “Already we’ve seen so many turns and twists in the road. And I think we’re going to see a lot more.”