WASHINGTON -- Key Senate Republicans rejected yesterday President Clinton's plea that they join him in negotiating a "reasonable" and "proportionate" response to House impeachment charges that would allow him to avoid a trial in the Senate.
But a consensus appeared to emerge among senators of both parties that while a Senate trial is almost certain to begin within a month or so, the proceedings may be cut short by a deal because the 55 Republicans don't have the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Clinton in the 100-seat chamber.
New polls show most Americans opposed Clinton's impeachment by the House Saturday on charges stemming from his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and two-thirds of those surveyed believe he should remain in office.
But Republicans contended that they have a constitutional duty to conduct a 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 and that a trial could take up to five months -- with the Republicans to blame for bringing the federal government to a standstill in an unpopular drive against the twice-elected Democratic chief executive.
Perhaps the most reliable prediction came from Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, who said nothing can be taken for granted in the highly charged political atmosphere that has already toppled two Republican House leaders.
"When this trial starts, anything can happen, and I think that already we've seen so many turns and twists in the road, and I think we're going to see a lot more," Specter said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
"While resignation is not realistic today, a plea bargain where he'd leave office is not in the cards today, stay tuned," Specter said.
Yesterday's comments reflected the confusion of a groggy morning-after following the nation's second presidential impeachment.
The impeachment votes that came almost exclusively along party lines in the House present a delicate political problem in the Senate, which usually can function only with bipartisan agreement. A Senate minority -- sometimes one senator -- can freeze any action.
Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate majority whip and second-ranking Republican, took the hardest line among more than a dozen of his colleagues making television appearances yesterday, dismissing the notion of circumventing a Clinton trial.
"The Constitution says if you receive these articles [of impeachment], you will have a trial," Nickles said on "Fox News Sunday."
If the 45 Democratic senators were unified in their desire to avoid a trial and able to persuade six Republicans to join them, the trial "could be circumvented," Nickles said. "But I would be very surprised."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who has already lost favor with his GOP colleagues lately for appearing sympathetic to Clinton, argued on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Republican leaders should consider whether conducting a trial is in the "best interests of the country" if it's already clear that Clinton won'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 to be convicted, so be it."
Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who, like Nickles, reflects the views of the conservative Republicans driving the impeachment process, similarly dismissed the notion a speedy plea bargain.
"At some point on down the road, the solution that [Clinton and Democratic senators have] suggested may well be where we end up, but I don't see any constitutional alternative to going forward," McConnell said on "Meet the Press."
No lurid testimony on TV
McConnell said it might also be possible to spare the country from potentially lurid testimony from Lewinsky and other witnesses by shutting off the television cameras and retreating into closed sessions.
"This will not be a spectacle," McConnell promised. "It will not demean the Senate. I think we will carry out our constitutional duty and it will be handled in a bipartisan way all along the path to conclusion."
Despite Clinton's appeal for a negotiated settlement shortly after the House approved two articles of impeachment against him Saturday, one of the president's top lawyers said on "Fox News Sunday" that the White House is preparing for a trial.
"We are confident both on the law and on the facts that we can defend the president," said Gregory B. Craig, a longtime Clinton friend who joined the White House team in September to try to head off the impeachment vote.
"He did not serve the nation well" in his illicit relationship with Lewinsky, Craig acknowledged. "But I don't think he should be removed for that conduct."
Craig said the White House is seeking advice from a number of Senate elders, such as former Democratic Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, the mediator in Northern Ireland peace talks who might lend his skills to a Clinton plea bargain. Deals floated so far usually call for Clinton to agree to a large fine and a loss of government benefits.
The White House has not decided on the details of its trial strategy, such as whether to call witnesses, Craig said, because it is waiting to see a "bill of particulars" from the House, which would include more specific allegations against Clinton than are in the articles of impeachment.
Among the variables that could influence the duration and result of a Clinton trial is public opinion, which so far seems to remain on Clinton's side.
Clinton still strong in polls
An NBC poll taken Saturday showed Clinton's approval rating rose after the vote to 72 percent from 68 percent, while 62 percent said the president should serve 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 those surveyed thought Clinton should remain in office -- a slight drop from 69 percent before the vote.
That same two-thirds majority said they didn't think Clinton's resignation would help the country.
It's not clear how those numbers might be affected by a lengthy and bitter Senate trial. Clinton's defenders are hoping that senators of both parties find it in their interest to short-circuit the process.
"There is extraordinary solidarity among Democrats in the Senate and increasingly a desire among some Republicans in the Senate to have this matter ended," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," Torricelli said he knew of no Democrats who would vote to 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 to end, 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 a bipartisan censure resolution to be voted on by the Senate to quickly end the impeachment process. Their proposal, to appear on the Op-Ed page of today's New York Times, would require Clinton to publicly acknowledge that he lied under oath.
Clinton has expressed a willingness to accept a censure resolution, but he has been adamantly opposed to saying that he lied under oath.
Pub Date: 12/21/98