WASHINGTON -- In a surprise development, the Senate's senior and most respected Democrat called yesterday for an early end to the impeachment trial of President Clinton, setting off a new flurry of activity by senators to devise an exit strategy.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd said he plans to make a formal motion, probably Monday, to dismiss the charges against Clinton.
The 81-year-old West Virginian said he had concluded that the votes needed to convict the president "are not there" and are unlikely to develop.
Byrd's motion isn't expected to gain enough Republican support to succeed.
But his view that continuing the trial would be both pointless and harmful to the nation is likely to add fresh impetus to the search for a swift and graceful way out.
"Lengthening this trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited upon our nation," Byrd declared.
"I see a motion to dismiss as the best way to promptly end this sad and sorry time for our country."
A former Senate majority leader, Byrd has a legendary reputation for independence and is watched closely by fellow senators in both parties.
Months ago, in a stern warning aimed at the White House, he admonished Clinton not to"tamper" with the impeachment jury in the Senate.
He had been considered to be one of the Democrats most likely to side with Republicans on a vote to remove the president from office.
Byrd's announcement, delivered in the form of a news release, caught members of both parties off-guard, even though a vote on a motion to dismiss the case was specifically permitted under terms of a bipartisan agreement approved Jan. 8.
After making his decision public at midafternoon, Byrd vanished from the Senate floor for the rest of the day.
But his one-page statement continued to be passed around the Senate floor for hours afterward. Soon after getting word of Bryd's plan, dumbfounded Republican senators hustled into a hasty strategy session with Majority Leader Trent Lott during a break in the trial.
"I was simply stunned when I learned that he was going to sponsor this," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican.
Rooted in impatience
House Republican prosecutors, who have been losing ground steadily for several days, angrily charged that the drive to dismiss the case was rooted in the Senate's impatience with the trial.
"By dismissing the articles of impeachment before you have a full trial, you are sending a terrible message to the people of the country," Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is leading the prosecution, told the senators.
Democrats said they were encouraged by Byrd's decision to offer the dismissal motion because he had said before the trial that he could "vote either way" on whether to remove Clinton.
"I think he is the best person in the Senate to offer this motion," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the second-ranking Democrat.
But several conservative Republicans rushed to television microphones to challenge Byrd's reasoning.
"We should not be voting to dismiss the case because we think the votes aren't there to convict, or for the convenience of the Senate or because we are troubled by the idea of certain witnesses in the well of the Senate," said Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.
Kyl argued that the Senate has a duty to vote on whether to convict Clinton on the two articles of impeachment. He hinted that Byrd was trying to avoid casting that vote.
White House reticent
The White House had little to say about Byrd's decision.
"Our position is clear," said James Kennedy, a Clinton spokesman. "We favor a fair, bipartisan and expeditious resolution of this whole matter."
Byrd, who has been harshly critical of Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky, said his decision should not be interpreted to mean that he believes the president "did no wrong."
Clinton "has caused his family, his friends and this nation great pain," Byrd said, and "has weakened the already fragile public trust that has been placed in his care."
But Byrd said he saw no point in extending the trial to the next step in the process -- calling witnesses. He said witness testimony would not add "anything of consequence to this process."
A Senate divided
The Senate is divided on the question of calling witnesses, which can be approved only by a majority vote. A decision on whether to take additional testimony is scheduled to be made next week, unless senators agree on a different arrangement.
Republican senators plan to meet at 9 a.m. today to plot their next move, before the full Senate convenes at 10 a.m. for a second, and presumably final, day of questions for the two sides in the trial.
Clinton's private lawyer, David E. Kendall, warned the Senate yesterday that it could take "many months" to conclude the trial if senators vote to take testimony from witnesses.
In recent days, sentiment appears to have been building in the Senate to find a quicker way out. One plan under discussion would permit a few witnesses to be deposed, but it would also call for a final vote on the articles of impeachment within three weeks.
"We're all looking for a way to take a final vote and end this thing," said Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
Private meeting of all
Lott, the Republican leader, has proposed another private meeting of all 100 senators, similar to the one two weeks ago that produced the unanimous agreement on schedule and procedure now being used.
"We're going to have that bipartisan meeting on the endgame when we meet to discuss the motion to dismiss," predicted Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. "That's an exit strategy."
When the senators emerged from their trial session last night, many Republicans dismissed the Byrd motion as a device to try to keep wavering Democrats in line.
There hasn't been much sign of Democratic wavering, however. Most Democrats seem to share the view of Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski, a Byrd protege, who said she could support a motion to dismiss but would prefer that the senators have a chance to cast their votes on the articles of impeachment.
Pub Date: 1/23/99