Senate grapples with impeachment trial rules
Clinton's trial gets under way with ceremonial flourishes
January 7, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, January 7) -- In a renewed attempt at bipartisan compromise, Senate Republicans and Democrats will meet at 9:30 a.m. ET Friday to discuss how to proceed with the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, at a joint news conference, said the two sides will try again to agree on procedures for Clinton's trial, which opened Thursday with a solemn, scripted ceremony.
"We think that the best way to keep calm and cool and dignified is to look at each other and talk to each other," Lott said.
All day, senators worked behind the scenes to try to achieve a consensus how to proceed with the trial, hoping to avoid the kind of partisan split that marked the House's handling of the impeachment matter.
Votes were scheduled for Thursday afternoon, but quickly postponed until Friday, on separate, conflicting Republican and Democratic proposals for the scope and shape of the trial. Whether to hear from witnesses remains a key sticking point.
But Lott and Daschle said Friday's meeting was scheduled as last-ditch effort to clear up some of the miscommunications and bridge the gap between the dueling plans, before separate votes that would almost certainly fall along party lines.
"We want to give it another effort, another 24 hours or less, to see if we can't find a way to resolve how we can proceed prior to the time we'd have a vote," Daschle said.
Daschle said a vote on trial procedures may be set for 1 p.m. ET Friday. But both leaders warned that is subject to change and it is still unknown if there will be votes on two proposals or one vote on a bipartisan plan.
Meanwhile, the White House warned Thursday that if witnesses testify, as House prosecutors have urged, "all bets are off" on how long the trial may last, and administration officials expressed frustration over how to prepare for a trial whose format and procedures were still up in the air.
The dueling proposals
The Republican proposal would send a summons to Clinton, giving him until Tuesday to respond to the perjury and obstruction of justice charges against him. House prosecutors would give opening statements next Thursday. The president would follow shortly after the Martin Luther King holiday. Each side would have up to three days to present its case. The trial would conclude by February 12.
Following the opening statements, the senators would determine if witness testimony was needed. "I think it's wrong that you say at the beginning, absolutely no witnesses. I also think it's wrong to say at the beginning there's going to be 'X' number of witnesses," said Lott.
"Let's have the presentations, the opening statements, the evidence, have the House explain why they might need this particular witness to clarify this particular fact, or the White House, then let the Senate consider that and vote. And any witness request that gets 51 votes, that witness will come," Lott said.
Democrats were drafting a proposal that would base the trial on the record used by the House and want a vote up front on whether witnesses would be allowed to testify.
White House says witnesses would mean delays
The White House is anxiously awaiting news of how the Senate will proceed. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said Thursday it would be "manifestly unfair" for the Senate to conduct the trial without deciding in advance how the proceedings will go forward.
"You cannot have a process that's fair to someone involved in that process where the rules get made up as you go," Lockhart said. "I would suggest that that would be a situation, an environment, that is manifestly unfair to the president."
The White House also weighed in on the question of witnesses Thursday, saying if witnesses are allowed, the president will ask for discovery and depositions and make motions posing "significant delays" to the proceedings.
Lockhart said the White House had offered Wednesday night to "stipulate" to the record used by the House of Representatives in its hearings on the perjury and obstruction of justice allegations against Clinton. But that stipulation was based on an agreement that neither side would call witnesses during the Senate trial.
Stipulating to the record would mean the White House would accept Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report to Congress as the official record of the case. That would not mean the White House would accept the contents of the Starr report as true. Rather the White House would simply recognize it as the record and there would be no need for further witness testimony before the Senate.
Historic trial opened with ceremony
While the Senate continued to wrangle behind the scenes over how to proceed, publicly senators proceeded with the ceremonial opening of impeachment trial of the president -- the first since the unsuccessful effort to unseat President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
The historic session began Thursday morning when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and the 12 other House managers presented the Senate with the two articles of impeachment against the president.
Hyde, accompanied by the House members who will serve as prosecutors, walked the articles of impeachment across the Capitol from the House to the Senate. The lawmakers were escorted into the chamber where Hyde read the articles from the well of the Senate.
The House approved two articles of impeachment against Clinton on December 19, charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Thursday afternoon, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was escorted into the chamber by six senators, three Democrats and three Republicans. After making a short statement, the chief justice was sworn in by President Pro Tempore Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) to preside over the impeachment trial.
The chief justice's first act was to swear in the 100 senators as jurors. The senators took an oath of impartiality and were called alphabetically to approach the dais at the front of the chamber to sign the "oath book."
Will the key players testify?
A group of bipartisan senators met late into the night Wednesday in an attempt to decide on the scope and procedures for the trial. The senators met with both House prosecutors as well as White House lawyers led by Charles Ruff.
The House managers continue to push for Lewinsky, Betty Currie, the president's personal secretary, and Vernon Jordan, Clinton's close friend, to testify, sources said, but are split on whether there should be other witnesses.
The House managers are also considering calling other so-called "Jane Does" -- women who were not named in the Paula Jones civil rights-employment discrimination case but who gave sworn statements. But the House Republicans are split on this issue because the women were not included in Starr's referral to Congress.
Sources say approximately a third of the Republicans favor a full trial with witnesses, while another third favor no witnesses at all. The final third within the Republican caucus remains undecided.
One possibility is that the witnesses, if called, could give closed-door depositions, rather than live testimony, to the Senate. Sources said many senators favored depositions to keep the trial from becoming a public spectacle.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Candy Crowley, John King and Bob Franken contributed to this report.
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