It's a dirty job, but the Senate's got to do it

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CEREMONY AND ritual, as the Royal Family and Parliament discovered in the 19th century, are not to be disdained. They can, by appealing to an ageless past, legitimise what would otherwise seem flaky. They can hide the cracks, covering up an absence of substance in a surfeit of form. And they can paint politics in more durable colours, making brute reality appear somehow more acceptable.

All of these were present last week as the US Senate moved to take over the impeachment of Bill Clinton, taking the first steps towards a trial. The trial managers from the House of Representatives were received formally by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, James Ziglar, as though receiving a particularly troublesome foreign delegation. The Chief Justice of the United States was driven the 200 yards from the Supreme Court to administer an oath to the Senators; the process was agreed, and then everyone dispersed once more.

The remarkable displays of protocol and theatre which marked the transfer from the House and the swearing-in were intended to draw a historical veil over events, appealing to a historical referent which in fact barely exists. Not since 1868 has the impeachment of a president moved from House to Senate. (President Nixon resigned before this point.) By reaching back, the Senate was stressing historical continuity, the paramount form of legitimacy.

But it was also a convenient form of temporisation. While "hear ye, hear ye, hear ye" was echoing in the chamber, the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties were fighting tooth and nail over what would constitute a trial. No empty precedents and protocol here: this was substance, and Democrat and Republican fought within and between parties to decide how a trial would take shape.

Above and beyond party, the principal motive seems to have been to preserve the dignity of the chamber. The House of Representatives, in the view of many senators (Republican and Democrat alike), botched things, and botched them badly. The Senate is sniffy about the lower house. If you wanted a token of this, then you had only to read the impeachment charges, signed in the names of Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker, and the clerk of the House of Representatives, Robin Carle. Mr Gingrich was toppled in a mini-coup last year; Ms Carle resigned after it was revealed that she had used her office credit card for personal purchases. Their names are writ in water, and the Senate likes to think it is made of sterner stuff.

The Senate is "not a popular body. It's the saucer in which the tea cools off," Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior senator from New York, told the Washington Post. The Senate is as close to permanent power as the US comes. Its members are elected for six years, two years longer than a presidential term.

The grandees who rose to sign their names in the oath book on Thursday have a perspective far longer than any other branch of government. Mr Moynihan, for instance, served Kennedy, John- son, Nixon and Ford before he was first elected to the Senate 22 years ago. When he swore to do his duty as a juror with a long and sonorous "I dooo", it sounded as if he really meant it. People like these will not see the Senate turned into The Jerry Springer Show, as they believe the House was during the impeachment hearings.

"You know, we didn't ask for this trial," said Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. "We didn't ask for the President to conduct himself the way he did, and we didn't ask for the House to make a mishmash of this thing. But all that's happened and now we have to preserve the Senate and give the country a sense of credibility."

So it was that the Senate - after weeks of scrapping, after often unpleasant arguments, but always behind closed doors - finally came to agreement when the swearing-in ceremony was over and the charabancs had moved on, as to how it would conduct itself. In a remarkable session in the Old Senate Chamber, the senators caucused alone, and decided precisely how they will handle the impeachment trial of the President.

The proceedings will begin on Wednesday, with procedural pretrial motions. From Thursday, the impeachment managers from the House have 24 hours over several days to put their case, and then the White House will follow with its arguments. The senators will question both sides (through written inquiries). Then, by simple majority vote, the Senate will decide firstly whether to adjourn the whole thing; and, secondly, whether to call witnesses.

In this way, the Senate has left itself plenty of exit strategies. It has also yielded to practicality. The biggest issue facing the senators was whether or not to admit witnesses; and they decided, magisterially, not to decide. It is their prerogative.

The theatricals and the insistence on process rather than product have helped to disguise what is actually under way here. The reality is that a president may fall: not just a head of government, but a head of state. There is no British parallel. We have removed heads of government on many occasions, through votes of confidence, through elections and leadership battles. But Britain has removed heads of state only rarely, and then through a revolution or war.

The Senate has made it much less likely that this will happen by raising the prospect of foreshortening the trial. Indeed, perhaps its greatest sleight of hand was to make everyone forget about Bill Clinton for a few days, and concentrate on some exemplary parliamentary pomp instead. But starting this week, everything will be for real, however nicely packaged it may be.

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