Lewinsky's return changes everything

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The Independent Online
THE SENATE trial of President Clinton resumes this afternoon after a weekend of unforeseen drama that changed the political landscape entirely. With the return to Washington of Monica Lewinsky, the Senate threw its cautious endgame to the wind and opened the way for battle to be rejoined in earnest.

When proceedings adjourned on Friday, the stage seemed set for a rapid conclusion to Mr Clinton's agony. Two exceptional speeches - Mr Clinton's State of the Union address on Tuesday, and former senator Dale Bumpers' eloquent defence of the President on Thursday - had changed the dynamic in favour of a settlement. The patriarch of the Senate and acknowledged guardian of the Constitution, the Democratic senator Robert Byrd, had announced that he would argue for dismissal. He was expected to submit a motion to that effect today.

Then Ms Lewinsky arrivedin town. Her return - and the reason for it - transformed everything. It smashed the delicate manoeuvring towards compromise. It infuriated Democrats, moved the White House close to panic, and offered wavering Republicans a reason not to settle - at least, not yet. How could they move to dismiss the case when a key witness was in Washington and waiting to be heard?

Ms Lewinsky was summoned to Washington following a judge's order that she must co-operate with the House of Representatives "managers", who want to ask her about how she might testify if called to answer questions in the Senate. The 13 "managers" are presenting the case for the prosecution of the President in the Senate. Ms Lewinsky has the potential either to help or to harm the President - depending on whether she supports the view of a conspiracy to keep the truth of their relationship from the courts.

The Republican "prosecutors" have no intention of summoning her to testify unless she will support their cause. Initially, she refused to submit to preliminary questioning, insisting that the terms of her immunity agreement precluded it. On Saturday, however, a judge ruled otherwise, and Ms Lewinsky was on the next plane from Los Angeles. She brought with her all the images that the White House had tried so hard to banish - her youth, her sex appeal and all the sordid details of what occurred with the President in the precincts of the Oval Office.

Saturday's scheduled question-and-answer session in the Senate Chamber - which had been flagging under lack of controversy - suddenly sprang into life. Ms Lewinsky and whether she should be questioned - informally by lawyers, or formally in the Senate - was a major concern. And the possibility of calling Ms Lewinsky as a witness reopened the whole dispute about whether witnesses should be heard - the controversy that had divided the Senate from the start, but been delicately deferred.

Today's session had been scheduled to start with Senator Byrd's motion to have the case dismissed. Whether this motion will be submitted is now in question, for if, as it seems, the return of Ms Lewinsky has reunited the Republicans, not even six will cross the floor to give the Senator the 51 majority his motion would need. Senators may decide simply to delay the evil day for voting and continue with the question-and-answer session that was adjourned on Saturday, while meeting in corridors and offices to shape some compromise.

If there is a vote on dismissal and that fails, there are still difficult choices to be made.

They could vote on whether to hear witnesses, formally or informally. They have then to decide whether the question should be debated, whether that debate should take place in private and, if there are to be witnesses, who they should be.

The only way, under these circumstances, that the trial could end would be if senators agreed on a final vote - guilty or not guilty of the impeachment articles as charged.

With only 55 Republicans and the Democrats bound to oppose, the 67 votes required to convict are simply not there - at any rate, not now.