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Senate Trial in Uncharted Water Opens Thursday

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even without a clear blueprint on how to conduct the impeachment trial to remove President Clinton from office, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced Tuesday that the proceeding will open on Thursday.

Among the unresolved matters that continued to split the Republican majority were questions over such basic procedural issues as how long the trial will last and whether witnesses will be called--even as proposals for an abbreviated trial and a censure resolution both were losing steam.

Underscoring the murky outlook, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who is to argue the case against Clinton, emerged from a meeting with aides Tuesday night and conceded that he had little idea of what to expect.

“Everything is under negotiation. All kinds of rumors are going around. Time is wasting. We need to agree on a format,” Hyde said, echoing a frustration shared by his team of 12 “managers,” all fellow House Republicans who will assist in the prosecution.

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Despite such unresolved matters, the White House reacted Tuesday with equanimity--in sharp contrast to the confrontational tone it adopted during the House impeachment proceedings.

White House lawyers are “preparing for all eventualities,” presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart said. “We expect this process to move forward in a way that’s fair, bipartisan and expeditious.”

Lott announced the trial opening after he and his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), discussed the case at the Supreme Court with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will preside over the trial.

Adding still more uncertainty to the timetable is Rehnquist’s schedule for next week. The chief justice told Daschle and Lott that oral arguments at the court may prevent him from presiding over the trial on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, sources said.

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Lott later closeted himself in the Capitol and, in a race against the clock, met throughout the day and into the night with senators from both parties, trying to cobble together a plan for an impeachment trial that he vowed would “proceed expeditiously and fairly.”

“I am . . . seeking common ground and a nonpartisan approach to the grave matters before us,” Lott said. But even as he read his prepared remarks, another senator emerged from Lott’s office with a somber pronouncement.

“I don’t think there’s a consensus on anything,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) agreed. “There is no Republican position,” he said.

Both the House and Senate officially convene today, with newly elected members taking their oaths of office.

On Thursday, Rehnquist is expected to be sworn in as the trial’s presiding officer. He would then administer a special oath of office to the 100 senators, who will serve as jurors.

The flurry of meetings on Tuesday occurred in the largely deserted Senate side of the Capitol, as lawmakers darted in and out of various hideaway offices. As the negotiations intensified, Lott also consulted by telephone with constitutional scholars.

Democrats and Republicans are scheduled to caucus among themselves today. Out of those meetings, especially that of the GOP senators, who hold a 55-45 edge in the chamber, a more detailed plan for the trial is likely to emerge.

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The senators’ sense of urgency was prompted by more than the Thursday start date.

“The longer this drags out, the more acrimonious, the more political and the less helpful it’ll be,” Daschle warned in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

Since he publicly proposed a plan last week to hold an abbreviated trial, Lott has been catching flak, in private and in public, from many of his conservative GOP colleagues.

Under that scenario, senators would vote immediately after hearing presentations by Hyde and by attorneys for the White House--without the testimony of any witnesses.

If fewer than 67 senators vote to continue the trial, the proceeding could be adjourned and then a censure resolution taken up--presumably leading to a reprimand of Clinton for his conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

“If there are not [the votes to convict], then why subject the country and our children to all that detail?” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who first suggested a truncated trial, along with Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). “If we get into one witness, there will be many witnesses and this trial will go on and on and on,” Lieberman said on CNN late Tuesday.

Daschle and most Democrats have embraced the Lieberman-Gorton approach.

“We’re hopeful that Republicans and Democrats can agree on an expedited process that can allow the House to make its presentation without witnesses,” Daschle said. “We think [presenting witnesses] would accelerate the partisanship and acrimony we saw in such high degree on the House side.”

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The Constitution requires 67 votes, or a two-thirds majority of the Senate, to convict a president and remove him from office. But a vote to adjourn an impeachment trial requires a simple majority of 51 votes.

As envisioned by the somewhat vaguely worded Lieberman-Gorton proposal, the whole trial could be over within a week.

But in the face of growing opposition from conservative Republicans, who are demanding a full trial, that plan was rapidly losing support on Tuesday. Even some members of Lott’s own leadership team opposed the proposal.

“A two-thirds vote to continue is not going to be part” of the trial scenario, declared Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.). On the other hand, he added, “you can always at any point make a vote to adjourn. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope we would not even have that vote until the evidence is presented.”

However, Democratic sources said that a new option being considered would keep the short timetable but drop the controversial test vote: The idea calls for arguments lasting less than a week, but ending with up-or-down votes on each of the articles of impeachment, one charging Clinton with perjury and the other alleging obstruction of justice in his efforts to conceal his affair with Lewinksy.

And even conservative Republicans who were demanding a full trial indicated they wanted some limits on its scope.

“If they submit a list of 25 witnesses, then I would say that senators of both parties would stand up and say, ‘Hey, wait,’ ” said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).

Lott is said to be concerned that a lengthy impeachment imbroglio could cost the GOP Senate seats in 2000, when 19 Republicans will be up for reelection, compared to only 14 Democrats.

Thus even as he backpedaled from the Lieberman-Gorton plan, Lott pointedly urged the public to call their senators and express their views.

That statement is remarkable because all year long, polls have consistently shown that the public overwhelmingly opposes the House impeachment of Clinton--and his removal from office by the Senate.

Conservative Republicans are not the only wing of the party that Lott must worry about.

If he pushes too aggressively for a wide-ranging trial, or if the proceedings turn into a protracted partisan spectacle, many Republicans who want the matter to be disposed of quickly may vote with the Democrats to end the trial.

“Lott has very little operating room,” said a top GOP strategist.

Democrats face the opposite challenge. If they push too aggressively and too soon to abort the trial, they run the risk of looking like they are playing politics.

Also on Tuesday, key senators said that a censure resolution reprimanding Clinton cannot be considered a done deal in the event that he is acquitted.

“I don’t know that censure is even necessarily an inevitability,” Daschle said.

That possibility looms because many Republicans argue that presidential censure is not specifically provided for by the Constitution and thus they are demanding a straight up-or-down vote on the impeachment articles approved by the House on Dec. 19.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said at a Tuesday press conference that he and like-minded Republicans may filibuster a censure proposal.

“The precedent of censure, especially one agreed to by a president under the threat of impeachment, could dramatically rework two centuries of evolution of authority in our nation,” he said.

During his NBC interview, Daschle said he was now uncertain whether even a majority of the Senate could agree on a censure resolution.

“There is a lot of concern about how a censure would be written and when it would occur and what kind of support there would be on the Republican side for censure,” Daschle said.

A number of Democrats, including Daschle and Lieberman, have called for a stern rebuke of the president in the event that he is acquitted.

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Times staff writers Marc Lacey, Elizabeth Shogren, James Gerstenzang, Richard A. Serrano and Art Pine contributed to this story.

You can easily send your views on the impeachment proceedings to your elected representatives in Washington with The Times’ Web site’s “Write to Congress” feature:

https://www.latimes.com/congress


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