Clinton's Senate Trial: Senators go on unknown journey

Click to follow
THE US Senate opened the impeachment trial of President Clinton yesterday with all due solemnity, observing Constitutional procedures invoked for the last - and only - time in 1868.

The Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, was sworn in as presiding judge; the 100 senators were sworn in as jurors, and then...? Then nothing. Proceedings were summarily adjourned, for the simple reason that there was no agreement about what to do next.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are to hold caucus meetings today to try to hammer out a compromise.

The rules for that trial have still not been set, and all attempts to reach agreement have failed. A provisional timetable was broached yesterday by the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Trent Lott, who said that opening statements would be heard next Thursday, and that the trial would last until 5 or possibly 12 February. Even that, however, is not certain.

The big sticking point is whether the Senate should call "live" witnesses. On one side are a majority of Democrats (effectively toeing the line of the White House) who oppose calling witnesses. Their most frequent argument is that it could drag out proceedings for months and impede the workings of government. Behind this, however, lies another reason: the fear that Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Vernon Jordan or the President's private secretary might say things under cross-examination - perhaps inadvertently - that damaged the President's case.

On the other side are Republicans, probably a majority of them, who say that the Constitution requires a trial, and a trial should entail consideration of all the evidence and questioning of "live"witnesses. Senators, they believe, should judge the merits of the case for themselves. Hardliners also believe there may be more stones to be upturned.

All the uncertainty and extempore rule-setting, however, also underline a point that US legal experts have been keen to point up: that a Senate impeachment trial is very different from a court trial. A Senate trial is, and is intended to have, a political aspect.

And while the senators are sworn in effectively as jurors and must be mute throughout proceedings, they have considerably more power than trial jurors.

If by a simple majority, 51 votes, they decide that they do not approve of the way the trial is going, or the way the Chief Justice is presiding, they can call the whole enterprise off. This is unlikely here, because the Democrats have only 45 votes compared with the Republicans' 55.

If the jury cannot agree a verdict, however, and their vote is tied, the presiding judge has the casting vote. Only at that point is the authority of the judiciary above that of the legislature and the chief executive. The question may now arise whether the judge may intervene earlier, to break a procedural stalement between the two parties in the Senate.