Dilemma for Congress on Clinton trial

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The Independent Online
THE US Congress reconvenes today amid almost unprecedented conflict and uncertainty for a session that could be a turning point in American history or merely the continuation of the troubled status quo - or almost anything in between.

With the fate of the President in its hands, the Senate must decide whether to open an impeachment trial or settle - as the White House and minority Democrats would prefer - for something less.

The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, said the trial would probably start tomorrow. But yesterday, there was still no agreement among the many different interests about how the Senate would, or should, proceed. The White House, which had angled a deal that would either preclude a trial or curtail it, was reported to be still hoping for the best, while preparing for the worst.

White House officials let it be known that its lawyers were preparing an "aggressive" defence of the President against the charges in the two articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives last month. The charges accuse Mr Clinton of perjury in lying to a federal grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and obstructing the course of justice by - among other things - lying to potential witnesses in the knowledge that they would unwittingly relay the lies when questioned under oath.

Senate Democrats, who appeared divided through the autumn about what measures should be taken against Mr Clinton, have progressively united in recent weeks behind calls for the President to be severely censured, but not tried. They were brought into line after Senator Pat Moynihan of New York, a stickler for constitutional correctness, changed his stance - in favour of resignation or trial - into a view that Mr Clinton's conduct did not fit the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanours" needed for removal from office.

In one of the contrary effects that have come to characterise Bill Clinton's presidency, it is the Republican majority in the Senate that goes into the new session today divided. Purists among them insist that the articles of impeachment by the House give the Senate no alternative but to hold a trial. Others insist that the Senate has the power to decide how to proceed, and could decide not to hold a trial at all. Others say that a trial should be opened, for the sake of constitutional form, but could then be halted (by a simple majority vote), or accelerated.

What divides the Republicans is a divergent view of the constitution and Mr Clinton's offences - whether, as many Democrats insist, it is "all about sex", or whether it is about the chief law officer breaking the law of the land. But political considerations also intrude, as Republican senators try to judge the mood of the state they represent and the effect on their re-election chances.

t The Republican majority in the House of Representatives yesterday elected Dennis Hastert, a seven-term Congressman from Illinois, to be House Speaker after the resignation of the Speaker-elect, Bob Livingston, amid allegations about his private life.