WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years, Senate leaders scrambled last night to try to agree on such basic details as how long the trial will last and whether witnesses will be called.
A bipartisan team of Senate negotiators met with House prosecutors to try to produce a blueprint for a trial that would end with a vote on the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton. But the meeting broke up with no apparent agreement.
Last night, White House officials made an unexpected visit to the Capitol to negotiate ground rules for the proceedings, but left after an hour without comment, the Associated Press reported.
Earlier, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said he was hopeful that agreement was near on a procedure for a "full trial ... and votes on articles of impeachment at the end of the process," probably after several weeks. Lott said he hoped that opening statements would begin next week, but he offered no assurances.
"We are making a sincere effort to do this in a way that is fair," Lott told reporters.
Today, in a solemn ceremony not seen since 1868, House prosecutors will lay before the Senate the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton and urge his removal from office.
The formal reading of the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from Clinton's efforts to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky will start the clock running on an impeachment trial that at this point has no certain end.
Weeks of effort by Lott to produce a bipartisan plan for streamlining the legal procedures and concluding the trial quickly have failed to yield concrete results. Despite a full day of meetings yesterday sandwiched around festive proceedings opening the 106th Congress, it was not clear exactly how the trial will be conducted.
A proposal to take a preliminary vote on whether the charges warrant Clinton's removal has been dropped, though senators are still seeking to place limits on the trial.
The meeting among Senate negotiators last night dealt with timetables for each side to present its case -- perhaps two or three weeks each -- and curbs on the filing of defense motions. The Senate negotiators included three Republicans, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Ted Stevens of Alaska and Fred Thompson of Tennessee, and three Democrats, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Carl Levin of Michigan.
A question of witnesses
The Democrats entered last night's negotiations with a blueprint for a deal that included a promise to refrain from procedural motions that would delay a trial in return for a promise that Republicans would not call witnesses.
It was far from certain, however, that the White House would agree to such a plan, even if Republicans agreed to it. Senate Democrats cannot keep the White House from taking any actions it deems necessary during a trial.
Plotting their impeachment strategies as they escorted family and friends through opening day ceremonies, senators said that a major obstacle to an agreement was a dispute over whether to allow witnesses to testify.
Many Republicans are backing House prosecutors, led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who visited Lott yesterday to argue that he needs the freedom to call six to eight witnesses to buttress the House case for impeachment.
Besides Lewinsky, those witnesses are expected to include Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and Clinton confidant, and Betty Currie, the president's secretary.
Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who will serve as one of the House prosecutors, said other witnesses who could be called include Dick Morris, Clinton's former political consultant, and Bruce R. Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal, both senior presidential aides.
Most Senate Democrats and the White House protest that witnesses are unnecessary and would only sensationalize the proceedings.
"I've never seen such agreement in this caucus," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "There should not be witnesses. That's when it gets out of control."
Frustration was clearly mounting yesterday at the White House, as lawyers awaited word on whether they would be presenting a lengthy defense, with witnesses and procedural motions, or whether they would simply present oral arguments, then hope for the best.
"I would think the fundamental tenets of fairness say that anyone who is trying to defend themselves should understand what the process is from the outset and not find out what the rules of the game are halfway through," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman.
'A very difficult situation'
A White House legal aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained: "We're in a very difficult situation. We're having to prepare for all sorts of scenarios."
The president is eager to have the impeachment process completed as quickly as possible, but his lawyers are preparing for the worst. The White House is considering its own witness list that would try to take the focus of the trial away from the specific charges against Clinton.
The president's lawyers want to undermine the case against Clinton by linking some of the prosecution's key players with long-standing conservative enemies of the president. Under that scenario, the president's lawyers would call as witnesses two other central figures in the saga -- Linda R. Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, though some legal advisers are counseling against that strategy.
"Whether there is one witness or eight witnesses or 15 witnesses, you're now onto a slippery slope that we may not be able to climb out of," said a senior Democratic leadership aide in the Senate. "It's impossible to let a little bit of the genie out of the bottle."
An eye on the voters
Sentiment over the delay was mixed on Capitol Hill, where the absence of an agreement for a streamlined procedure left open the prospect of an open-ended trial that could drag on for months and incur the wrath of voters.
According to a recent CBS News poll, public opinion remains where it has been for much of the year: One-third of the Americans surveyed think the president's action are serious enough to justify his being impeached and removed from office, according to the poll, conducted Sunday and Monday.
Two-thirds -- roughly the same proportion that has given Clinton favorable approval ratings over the past year -- say a full trial is not necessary, and most of them predicted it would have a serious impact on the country.
Lott is mindful of the danger lurking in these percentages for Republican senators seeking re-election in states where Clinton is popular.
The Republican leader complained in his opening day address on the legislative goals for the year that impeachment would obscure everything else. But he expressed the hope that it wouldn't be for long.
"The record must be made now that we have other important priorities back in our home states," Lott said, before ticking off a list of objectives topped by increased defense spending, education initiatives and tax cuts.
'Follow the precedent'
But conservative Republicans in the Senate believe that the stalemate over alternatives will leave the Senate with only one option, their option: a full-blown trial to decide the fate of the Clinton presidency.
"In the end, when everything else fails, I believe we will follow the precedent in the Constitution," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who favors an unlimited trial with witnesses.
Some Republicans say they believe that the longer the trial, the more likely that public opinion will turn against Clinton and that some Democrats may be persuaded to convict him.
The general assumption has been that Democrats are so united that it would be virtually impossible for enough of them to defect to produce the two-thirds majority needed for conviction.
But in a potentially ominous sign for the White House, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the respected dean of the Senate's Democrats, said Monday that he could now vote "either way" on the charges based on what he knows of the case.
Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/07/99