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President's trial opens tomorrow; Senators still trying to draft plan to end impeachment quickly; Clinton prepares defense; Procedures unclear, hearing could be delayed until March

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's impeachment trial will formally open in the Senate tomorrow, and though details on its timing and format are uncertain, White House lawyers are preparing a vigorous defense.

The opening of the trial promises to be a momentous piece of political theater. William H. Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, will be sworn in to preside over the first presidential impeachment trial since that of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Rehnquist will, in turn, swear in the 100 senators as jurors.

Thirteen House prosecutors will be summoned to officially present the two articles of impeachment that the House passed on Dec. 19. The articles will be read in full on the Senate floor, as they were on the House floor last month in one of the most dramatic events of the impeachment proceedings. The articles accuse Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice in concealing his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said yesterday that he hoped the trial would be fair and quick. But a bipartisan plan that calls for a speedy hearing and a preliminary vote, to conclude within a week or two, has failed to win broad support among Lott's fellow Republicans, many of whom favor a full-scale trial.

If the senators cannot agree on an alternative plan, long-standing Senate rules would govern the process, potentially delaying the start of the trial until March.

"We believe that's what would happen, but it is not our first choice," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Lott spent yesterday meeting with Republican colleagues, trying to craft a plan to begin and end the trial as quickly as possible. He and Daschle also met with Rehnquist.

"The leader is looking toward Monday" for opening arguments, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, said after meeting with Lott. "There is an interest in starting this as soon as possible."

Senate Republicans and Democrats will caucus privately this morning in an effort to produce a consensus. Aides say it is not clear when a plan of action might be decided upon.

"I'm going to do my best to make sure we complete our constitutional duties under the rules of the Senate and come to a conclusion that is fair and, hopefully, quick also," Lott said.

White House lawyers hope to head off a full-scale impeachment trial in the Senate. Meanwhile, they are preparing a much more detailed defense than the one they presented in the House of Representatives.

Clinton's legal advisers have concluded that there will be no middle ground: Either the Senate will cut the process short and leave Clinton in office, or, in a more likely scenario, it will launch a trial that could last months.

"They will aggressively defend the case," said Alan Baron, a Democratic lawyer and informal White House adviser. "Expect a more aggressive attack on the factual premise of the charges."

In the House last month, the president's lawyers based their presentation more on constitutional issues than on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's specific evidence against Clinton. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats called witnesses to bolster or dispute Starr's case before the House approved two of the four articles of impeachment, almost exclusively along party lines.

But the stakes are much higher now that the Senate is considering the removal of the president from office. And the defense is likely to be more calculated.

Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, said yesterday that the president's defenders would repeat arguments made during House impeachment hearings -- arguments that, Lockhart conceded, "have not yet flowered."

Lawyers will argue that the charges, even if true, do not rise to the constitutional impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Then they will challenge the notion that Clinton's evasive answers before the grand jury constitute perjury.

A sweeping defense

This time, the arguments of the lawyers, led by White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff and special counsel Gregory B. Craig, will be more expansive, challenging the House process that produced the impeachment articles. For instance, while Starr found three instances of alleged grand jury perjury, House Republicans identified no fewer than 12 in the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment report.

"It is a classic example of the House Republicans stretching beyond the evidence, perhaps because they recognized they had such a weak case of perjury based on the three from Mr. Starr," said Lanny Davis, a former White House lawyer.

Those original three perjury disputes included whether the president began his affair with Lewinsky in November 1995 or January 1996; whether he touched Lewinsky's breasts or genitals; and whether he believed he had been accurate in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit.

Baron said White House lawyers would first ask the Senate to vote on a motion to end the case without a trial. Senators would be asked to assume that all the charges against Clinton are true, and then to decide whether the charges would warrant removing the president from office for the first time in history.

The dismissal motion would be similar to a bipartisan Senate proposal that would prevent the trial from beginning without the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. But there is a key difference: The White House motion would require only a simple majority to pass.

The two-thirds majority in the proposal developed by Sens. Slade Gorton, a Washington state Republican, and Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, was intended to match the two-thirds vote requirement that would be needed to turn Clinton from office.

With 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the Senate, it is widely assumed that it would be almost impossible to produce 67 votes to oust Clinton.

A motion to dismiss the charges that requires a simple majority of 51 would probably also fail. But White House legal advisers hope it would prove that House prosecutors could never persuade two-thirds of the Senate to convict.

That would bolster Democrats' arguments that the trial would amount to nothing more than "political theater," Baron said.

The president's lawyers would then demand that House prosecutors produce a document detailing which of Clinton's grand jury statements were perjurious and which of Clinton's actions illegally obstructed justice. Though the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment report contains such details, the articles of impeachment are vague, making it difficult for the president's lawyers to develop a point-by-point defense.

White House lawyers also are expected to argue that the articles of impeachment should be dismissed or revised, since each contains numerous "sub-charges" that should be separate articles and considered separately.

Possible postponement

The White House would also ask for at least 30 days to prepare a defense, depose possible witnesses and examine evidence gathered by the Judiciary Committee but unavailable to Clinton lawyers. House prosecutors have said that they would ask for 14 more days to prepare for trial. That could push the trial's start into early March.

"I think you can expect the White House is clearly going to be pushing for an expedited, fair, nonpartisan process," Baron said. "But they won't accept the prospects of the prosecution hand-picking a few damaging witnesses, taking testimony, then saying, 'See, we kept it short.' They will have to respond with witnesses of their own. Once they get into witnesses, this will not be fair and expedited."

Rep. Peter T. King, a moderate Republican from New York, said he has little hope that the Senate would be able to keep the proceedings civil.

"You won't see any cooperation -- none at all," King told the Associated Press. "There's too much bad blood on the floor."

Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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