Lott seeks to unify fractured GOP on bipartisan plan for Clinton trial; Republican, Democratic leaders in Senate hope for agreement by tomorrow


WASHINGTON -- With Congress set to reconvene tomorrow, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott is struggling to overcome Republican objections to a bipartisan plan for a speedy impeachment trial of President Clinton.

Lott and Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle are scheduled to meet with their rank-and-file members tomorrow morning and hope by the end of the day to forge some agreement on how to proceed.

"We're certainly going to work on doing our duty and reaching a consensus as best we can," Lott told reporters on his trip back to Washington yesterday from a holiday stay at his Mississippi home.

For Lott, the task is particularly tricky. He is struggling to reconcile a variety of competing interests and views that are dividing the Republican Senate majority, while the Democratic minority has remained relatively united.

Moreover, the senators have been unable to meet in person since Dec. 19, when the House approved two articles of impeachment, charging Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice for his efforts to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Senate has almost total power over how to design a trial -- or whether to conduct one at all. There may be as many ideas for how to do it as there are senators.

"There are, no doubt, some senators in my party who would like to see the president drawn and quartered," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, characterizing one of the many opinions held by Senate Republicans.

The one trial balloon floated so far -- for a quick Senate hearing on the House case for impeachment, followed by a vote on whether to proceed to a full trial -- has developed some punctures.

"I don't think that's the proposal we're going to end up with, but maybe a first cousin of it," said John Czwartacki, a Lott spokesman.

In trying to settle on a plan, Lott and Daschle have been working on the assumption that the Senate cannot produce the 67 votes needed to convict Clinton and remove him from office. The proposal they have been shopping around calls for a procedure, lasting perhaps a few days, during which lawyers for the House and the president would argue their case without offering new evidence.

The senators would then vote on whether they believed that removal from office would be justified if the impeachment charges against Clinton were true.

Only if two-thirds, or 67 senators, agreed on that point would a full-scale evidentiary trial go forward. If not, the Senate could move instead to censure the president for his conduct.

Senate Democrats have generally expressed support for this plan. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington state Republican who helped craft the proposal, said his "best guess" is that a majority of the full Senate would support it.

But Lott will formally offer the plan in the Senate, Gorton predicted, "only if a majority of Republicans favor it," and many Republicans are still wary of it.

Republicans have raised concerns about the requirement for a two-thirds majority to proceed with a full trial. They contend that this rule would give a minority of 34 senators the power to stop the impeachment effort cold.

"The Senate rules do not require that the House managers achieve a two-thirds vote before its case can be presented," Hatch wrote in an essay in the Washington Post yesterday. "In order to end a trial prematurely, a majority -- not one-third -- of the senators must vote to do so."

Hatch expressed the view, echoed privately by other colleagues, that disposing too quickly of the impeachment charges would insult the House's decision to impeach the president.

"One way or the other, we must repudiate the reckless actions of President Clinton, not the moral and principled action of the House," Hatch wrote.

The 13 House Republicans who would serve as prosecutors at the trial have vigorously opposed the Gorton proposal.

"You can see already there is a Democratic strategy to isolate the House and blame Clinton's impeachment on robotic right-wing nuts," said Craig Shirley, a Republican political consultant.

Lott is trying not to discredit the House's impeachment vote while still protecting Republican senators, particularly those seeking re-election next year. With one recent poll showing his party with its lowest public approval rating since the partial government shutdown three years ago, Lott does not want the Republican-led Senate to be perceived as dragging out the process to target a popular Democratic president.

Clinton appears so eager for a speedy end to the impeachment process that he is willing to delay his Jan. 19 State of the Union address if the Senate can agree on a procedure that could be completed within days, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Several senators from both parties have called on Clinton to postpone his annual address to Congress, saying it would be unseemly for him to make his regular appearance at the Capitol while an impeachment trial is going on.

But Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart said the president plans to speak on schedule. Lockhart did not entertain Republican proposals that the president simply send up his address in written form.

Sun staff writers Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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