WASHINGTON—As senators struggled yesterday to decide how quickly to conduct a trial of President Clinton, leaders of the House impeachment drive argued for the chance to make a full presentation of their case, complete with testimony from witnesses.
Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, floated a proposal for a two-week trial next month that would conclude with a vote on whether to remove Clinton from office. If less than the necessary two-thirds of the Senate voted to convict, a lesser sanction, such as censure, could be taken up.
"I would prefer that there would be a vote on the articles of impeachment," Lott said in an interview with the Associated Press.
But Lott said he did not think it would be necessary to examine witnesses on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice that stem from Clinton's efforts to hide his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
"I think the record is there to be reviewed, read, presented in a form that [House prosecutors] choose," the Senate Republican leader said. "And I think that would be sufficient."
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle agreed: "It's fair to say that Senator Lott and I are both comfortable with proceeding without witnesses, but again, it's a matter we're going to have to vet with our caucuses."
Nevertheless, the 13 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, who brought the articles of impeachment against Clinton to the full House, are preparing for a full-blown trial that could include new evidence. These Republican members say such evidence is necessary to justify their action against the president.
"No matter what the result" of the impeachment process in the Senate, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, "the question I have" is, "How would history judge that result? What did you base your decision upon?
"I think if you look at it that way, it's important for us to have a meaningful trial," Graham said.
Graham's view was echoed by several of his colleagues after the House members who will serve as prosecutors in the Senate trial met yesterday for their first strategy session. There is broad agreement among this group on the need to call witnesses and to give the president a chance to dispute any testimony or evidence, a spokesman for the committee said.
"There was no show of hands, but I am anticipating, based on everything we've discussed in there today, that there would be witnesses, we would present witnesses," said Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican. "I don't think there's any question about that."
Technically, House members have no say in how the Senate trial will be conducted. But the views of the conservative Republicans who have led the impeachment effort will be crucial factors to consider in what is a political, rather than a judicial, procedure.
So far, though, Lott and Daschle agree that witnesses are not necessary.
In an interview yesterday with MSNBC, Lott outlined a proposal he is shopping around the Senate. The plan calls for a brief, tightly run trial that would be based on legal arguments and on evidence that the House prosecutors choose to present. Clinton's attorneys would offer their defense, including any additional evidence.
Lott suggested that the proceeding could begin on Jan. 11 and conclude by Jan. 22, with votes on the two articles of impeachment. If neither impeachment charge musters the two-thirds vote necessary to convict, as now seems likely, Lott indicated that the Senate could move on to other choices.
Daschle has not yet endorsed this proposal, according to a spokeswoman, Ranit Schmelzer, who called it one of several options being considered.
The White House, which is consulting closely with Daschle, could upset the plan by requesting more time to prepare for the case, or through other delaying tactics. At the moment, the president's team is offering no public comment on specific proposals.
In response to Lott, Amy Weiss, a White House spokeswoman, said, "We favor a bipartisan process that will bring closure fairly and expeditiously."
A Senate agreement on how to proceed with the trial is not expected until early next week.
Congress will convene for the new term on Wednesday. Preliminary steps toward beginning the trial, including swearing in the senators as jurors and swearing in Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist as the presiding judge, are expected Thursday.
Lott and Daschle are having trouble developing a consensus among their colleagues because most senators are striving to remain open-minded on this highly sensitive issue. For example, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, one of several moderate Republicans who the White House hopes might vote with Democrats to short-circuit a Clinton trial, said she would like to hear testimony from witnesses.
"I believe it would be helpful to me as a juror to hear directly from witnesses," Collins said yesterday in an interview on CNN. "I do think it would be helpful to me to hear firsthand from people who are critically involved."
Most senators agree that the Constitution requires them to take the first formal steps to begin a trial. But many Democrats, and some Republicans, are hopeful that a censure deal could be negotiated with the White House shortly after, and perhaps draw enough support to cut off the trial before it gets under way.
One potentially huge obstacle to any censure resolution may be that some senators will demand that Clinton admit to lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky, which the president has repeatedly refused to do.
"That is an important issue," Collins said. "If the president made an admission, that would help the process along for many people."
Because Clinton flatly denies the central impeachment charge that he lied under oath, a trial is clearly necessary, Graham said, even if censure is the ultimate result.
"The president of the United States has said he is not guilty -- that he did not commit perjury," Graham said. "I disagree. It would be up to somebody, I think, to resolve that dispute."