'Like some script from a TV satire'

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CONSIDER the scene. Monica Lewinsky is seated in the well of the US Senate, giving evidence in a trial watched by millions around the world. Before her is the grave figure of William Rehnquist, 74, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who was appointed by President Nixon. "Ms Lewinsky," the Justice begins cautiously, "your dress, the blue one, it needed dry cleaning. You did not have it cleaned. Why not, exactly?"

This is no script from a satirical late-night TV show. If, as seems inevitable, the passage of impeachment articles in the House of Representatives leads to the holding in the new year of a trial of William Jefferson Clinton in the Senate, an exchange such as this between Ms Lewinsky and Judge Rehnquist is not impossible.

It could be more lurid than that. In theory, all the characters who filled the original Starr Report on President Clinton's indiscretions could be called to testify. Linda Tripp, the "friend" of Monica with the tape recorder, could find herself on the stand. So could Kathleen Willey, someone else the President is alleged to have groped near the Oval Office.

The potential for embarrassment is almost unimaginable. Most pain will be reserved for the principals themselves - Monica, Bill and the rest of the First Family. There would be humiliation too, for the entire nation, as testimony is beamed around the globe about cigars, thong underwear and the Oval Office bathroom.

It is possible, however, that it will not be as bad as all that. The President will not be obliged to appear. He will be able to watch on television as his lawyers speak for him. And there is some expectation that Republicans in the Senate will seek to get the whole thing over as fast as possible. In that event, it is conceivable that no witnesses will be called. It is even possible that the Republican leadership will attempt to short-circuit a trial before it starts, as they ponder the risk of a voter backlash against their party. A deal could be negotiated allowing the full Senate to pass a resolution of censure in place of a trial.

Assuming a trial does go ahead, the Republican leadership in the Senate must rely on a 101-page rule book written 130 years ago when the last such impeachment trial was held. The man charged that time was President Andrew Johnson. After impeachment by the House, he survived removal from office in the Senate in 1868 by one vote.

Many of the rules are clear. Judge Rehnquist will preside and wield considerable power over the proceedings. He will decide on all motions sent to the floor, including whether the trial should be televised and what evidence will be admissible. The 100 senators will act as jurors, sitting in silence throughout "on pain of imprisonment". They will be able to submit written questions to witnesses through Judge Rehnquist.

Also unambiguous is the need for a two-thirds majority among the senators for the removal of the President. This makes it likely that the President will survive to complete his second term. When the new Senate convenes on 6 January, it will be composed of 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Ousting the President would require 67 votes. Even if every Republican voted to remove him, they would need another 12 Democrats to join them.

So astonishing have been events in recent weeks, however, that some in Washington do not rule out the possibility of a conviction. "Nothing is certain," said Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, yesterday.

Few, however, believe Mr Clinton's actual tenure is in real jeopardy - unless, of course, he is persuaded to resign.

Clinton crisis, pages 14-17

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