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Clinton asked to postpone State of Union; Senators say giving the address during trial is inappropriate; Speech scheduled Jan. 19; Plan for quick action is picking up support among lawmakers


WASHINGTON -- Senators of both parties called on President Clinton yesterday to delay or cancel his State of the Union address so that he does not appear before Congress while his impeachment trial is under way.

Even with momentum apparently building in the Senate for some kind of expedited proceeding, lawmakers agreed that there is little likelihood that impeachment action will be completed by Jan. 19, when Clinton is scheduled to make his annual address in the Capitol.

"I think it would be unseemly and distracting for the president to be giving a State of the Union address to Congress while he was under trial in the Senate," said Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican.

Gorton said the president "should seriously consider postponing it for a week or two.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who worked with Gorton to develop a proposal for avoiding a full-scale trial that is picking up support, said part of their plan includes a request to the White House to delay Clinton's address.

"This is another reason why we have a very short window here to try to work out a procedure for this trial," Lieberman said. "If we don't, we are going to descend, I fear, to the kind of partisan rancor that characterized the House proceeding, and we're going to get to a point where the president's going to have to make the State of the Union in the midst of this trial, and that's not going to be good for the country."

Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, who believes the Senate should conduct a full trial and conclude with a vote on whether to turn Clinton out of office, suggested that the president revert to a long-abandoned practice and submit his State of the Union message in writing.

"I agree that the president should not be speaking to Congress when he is under this cloud, under the trial," Gramm said.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, who advocates that, instead of a trial, Clinton be censured for offenses allegedly committed in connection with efforts to hide his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, also called for rescheduling the Jan. 19 appearance.

"It's inappropriate to report on the State of the Union as long as the president is under impeachment, because the State of the Union from the perspective of his administration is unclear," said Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat.

The senators made their comments on the NBC program "Meet the Press."

The White House did not immediately respond to the senators' suggestion, but the president has signaled that he intends to make his State of the Union address on schedule.

Clinton keeps up pace

While the senators have been wrestling during the holiday season with how to handle his trial, Clinton has been conspicuously going about the business of putting together a package of budget and legislative initiatives to be featured in his televised address from the House chamber.

Over the weekend, Clinton offered a preview of his plan for the largest increase in Pentagon spending since the mid-1980s. Yesterday, details were leaked of a Clinton proposal to provide tax credits to help with long-term care of the elderly.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who, like Gramm, would prefer a full trial and vote on Clinton's guilt or innocence, seemed to endorse that business-as-usual approach.

"This whole thing has been awkward from the beginning," McConnell said on the ABC program, "This Week."

"Just because it happens to present an awkward moment for us, I think, is not determinative," McConnell said. "He ought to come on up and give his State of the Union message. If we're not finished, we're not finished. And we'll finish when we get through."

One difficulty at this point in postponing the State of the Union address would be knowing just how long to put it off.

With the formal opening Wednesday of the new term of Congress, senators will meet as a group for the first time since the House impeached Clinton Dec. 19. Their comments in individual interviews suggest that a wide disparity of views still remains over how to respond to the House action.

"None of us have been together since this whole discussion began, and I don't know how that's going to come out," McConnell said.

Senate Republicans are expected to meet Thursday to decide whether to go along with the Gorton-Lieberman plan that could limit the trial to four days.

Difficult consensus

The biggest challenge faces Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is trying to shape a bipartisan consensus on impeachment procedure without losing too many of his fellow Republicans.

Lott is eager to dispense quickly with the impeachment matter, which promises little chance that Clinton might be ousted but could hurt Republican senators running for re-election in 2000 if it drags on so long that nothing else gets done during this term of Congress.

Several conservative Republican senators said yesterday, however, that they would resist Lott's attempt to win broad agreement on the Gorton-Lieberman plan.

That proposal calls for a hearing, beginning perhaps a week from today, on whether the perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Clinton in the two articles of impeachment approved by the House -- even if proved true -- would justify his removal from office.

Four-day approach

The Gorton-Lieberman plan would compress the process to as few as four days. House managers and Clinton's attorneys would make separate summary presentations, and senators could ask questions of either side. A full trial would not be conducted unless two-thirds of the senators vote that the House case meets the constitutional test of "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- an outcome considered unlikely.

It would take at least 12 Democratic votes to convict Clinton if all 55 Republicans voted against the president.

Echoing comments of fellow conservatives, Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican who contends the Senate has a responsibility to conduct a full trial, said on CNN that dispensing with a full presentation of the evidence "would be a serious mistake."

Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he believes enough Republicans would join the relatively united Democrats to come up with a 51-vote majority to support the Gorton-Lieberman plan.

Lott isn't likely to ignore a majority of his fellow Republicans, but he acknowledged in an interview with Time magazine that he realizes he can't please everyone.

"It is an effort to have the evidence presented and have votes that bring this to a closure," Lott said of the Gorton-Lieberman plan, which he called "a fair start."

Thad Cochran, Lott's partner from Mississippi and one of the mainstream Republicans supporting the compromise proposal, compared it to a motion for summary judgment, a common tactic in American courtrooms.

"Assuming all the facts are supporting the articles of impeachment, would two-thirds of the Senate vote to remove the president from office? Having that vote, I think, would be important for the Senate to express itself on that issue," Cochran said. "If it isn't acceptable, then we may have to make amendments to it or changes to it to accommodate all senators."

One Republican who may be very difficult to accommodate is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. As part of a full-scale trial with testimony from witnesses, Specter wants Clinton himself to appear.

"This is one of those cases" where we need "more than the cold record," Specter said on NBC. As far as Clinton is concerned, Specter pointed out that the president in his grand jury testimony and deposition for the Paula Jones sexual misconduct case was evasive in his answers.

"We are entitled to hear from him in a straightforward way," Specter said.

Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said on CNN that he was "amazed" by Specter's comment because the president is not obligated to prove his innocence.

"This is supposed to be a case where the House is supposed to prove his guilt," Leahy said.

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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