WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan glow that surrounded the opening of President Clinton's Senate impeachment trial may be about to go out.
Barely three weeks since the senators agreed unanimously to begin the trial, they are scrambling to avoid what threatens to be an undignified break today into two battling camps.
A sharp partisan divide is propelling the Senate toward two key votes, with the outcome to fall almost strictly along party lines.
A Democratic motion to dismiss the impeachment charges, never given much chance of passing, is not expected to draw even one Republican vote.
By contrast, nearly all the majority Republicans are expected today to approve a motion to allow witnesses -- and thereby extend the trial by a week or more. A handful of Republicans who had wavered on this issue were won over with promises from Republican leaders that there would be only a few witnesses and that the time needed to question them would be limited.
With nearly all the Democrats expected to back the White House in its objection to witnesses, Senate Republican leaders had to marshal essentially all their own troops to prevail. Their idea for limited witnesses satisfied Republican political imperatives to allow witnesses and to end the trial as quickly as possible.
Yet, despite the appearance of two warring camps, the search for a plan acceptable to both sides has resumed.
During and after a closed-door debate on the issue of witnesses last night, senators of both parties began trying to craft a last-ditch deal to avoid the sort of partisan display that marked the House impeachment proceedings and provoked public disfavor.
"I think people don't want this to be perceived as becoming partisan," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "So, we're trying to find out if there is a way to avoid that. There may not be."
Talks centered on how depositions would be handled, with perhaps some agreement not to seek live testimony in the Senate, and on picking a date to vote on the articles of impeachment.
"I think there is a possibility" something can be worked out this morning before the two votes, said Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican. "Stay tuned."
In an effort to shore up wavering support for witnesses among Republicans, party leaders sent word to House prosecutors yesterday that they could have only three witnesses -- "a pitiful three," said the lead prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who wanted five times that many.
The prosecutors were also told that they would have only until Monday to depose the witnesses and to present the results to the Senate for a vote on whether to hear live testimony.
By all accounts the strategy worked. Most or all of the 55 Senate Republicans are likely to vote today to allow the depositions under a strict timetable -- even though a half-dozen or more had earlier voiced reservations.
"I'm troubled by turning down an opportunity," said Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is shifting toward allowing witnesses after days of expressing doubt about the need for them.
Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican, said the tide has clearly turned. "I'm one of those who is always described among the marginal people on this issue, and I have no hesitation about it," Gorton said. "I think three witnesses is very reasonable."
Resigned to witnesses
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota reiterated his assessment that witnesses at the trial are "inevitable."
"I think all the soft Republicans have turned hard," Daschle said. "The partisan lines have been drawn."
On the eve of the votes, the two sides offered dueling interpretations of their significance.
"Tomorrow will be a red-letter day for the Constitution and for the constitutional process," said Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who had failed to win a bipartisan deal for two witnesses and a guaranteed date for a final vote on the articles of impeachment.
Gramm predicted that the Senate would reject the dismissal motion and would vote to depose witnesses, thus rejecting the "short-circuiting of this process." All previous Senate impeachment trials, most of them involving judges, have resulted in a verdict, Gramm said, "and this one is going to go the distance to a verdict."
Many Republicans said they believed the vote to depose witnesses is but a small step toward fairness in granting the House prosecutors what they say they need to make their case.
"It's going be a tight time frame, and the number of questions to be asked will be very limited," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican. "We just want to get the truth. It's our constitutional responsibility to make sure it's a fair trial."
GOP defends moves
Republicans reject arguments that deposing witnesses or calling some to the Senate floor would prolong the trial indefinitely. They say any lengthly delays would be the fault of the White House.
"I don't think it follows that this thing has to take forever," said Sen. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, who proposed a tight schedule for deposing witnesses. "I think a mid-February deadline is looking more realistic all the time -- unless someone wants to dig in their heels."
But Democrats, still hoping for Republican defectors, characterized a vote to depose witnesses as a move to significantly and pointlessly extend a trial that most believe House prosecutors have no chance of winning because that would require at least a dozen Democratic votes.
"It's the only way [for House prosecutors] to extend their case," Kerry said. "Their last chance."
A move to depose witnesses -- including Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose affair with Clinton lead to the impeachment charges -- is simply a prelude, Democrats predict, to a circus on the Senate floor.
"The last thing I want to see is the sorry spectacle of Monica Lewinsky in the well of the Senate," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said last night.
Tight schedule questioned
Even if promises of a tight schedule could be kept, they would be unfair to the president, Democrats said. If the Senate approves the deposing of witnesses, the White House has projected a delay of weeks or months as it reviews new evidence -- and that could run even longer if it decides to call its own witnesses.
"As a beginning, they would need to review whatever evidence the House has that the president's lawyers haven't seen," Daschle said. "Whatever is needed to defend the president from these charges, we'll do."
And some Democrats argue that the latest Republican plans for completing the trial seem as partisan as the House proceedings.
This "is exactly what happened in the House," Kerry said, referring to the almost exclusively party-line votes by which Clinton was impeached. "It is sort of an exit strategy a la GOP, a way to end this on their own terms."
Sun staff writer Paul West contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/27/99