Senate looks for `honourable exit'

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THE SENATE trial of President Clinton could be over on Monday, after an influential Democrat senator, Robert Byrd, said he would submit a formal motion to have the charges dismissed. A senior Republican, however, Orrin Hatch, held out the possibility that formalities could be extended by several weeks with lawyers' questioning of witnesses, even if the Senate decided to adjourn the trial without hearing witnesses.

And the chairman of the House prosecutors, Henry Hyde, threw in yet another proposal, urging senators by letter to invite Mr Clinton to testify. Although the White House has consistently discouraged the idea that Mr Clinton might defend himself in person, Mr Hyde said: "Because the President is the only individual with knowledge of almost every material fact relevant to the trial, his testimony could greatly help to expeditiously and fairly bring this matter to a close."

While the three proposals favoured different courses of action and different timescales, they indicated that the search for a satisfactory solution - or "honourable exit strategy" as it was dubbed in the corridors of the Capitol - was on in earnest, on both sides of the political divide. But it was Senator Byrd's announcement that attracted most attention: less because a motion to dismiss was now imminent - votes on whether the case should be dismissed or continued were already scheduled for Monday - than because its author would be Robert Byrd, Senator for West Virginia. Mr Byrd has been one of Mr Clinton's severest Democrat critics; he is also regarded by other senators as a guardian of the Constitution and procedural correctness.

Where Robert Byrd leads, other Democrats will surely follow, and the prospect cannot be excluded that six or more Republicans will cross the floor to join them. In that event, the motion for dismissal would have a simple majority (51) of Senate votes, and the trial of Bill Clinton, only the second impeachment trial of a President, would be over.

In his statement, Mr Byrd said he would propose the motion not because he believed that Mr Clinton had done no wrong, "but I am convinced that the necessary two-thirds for conviction are not there and that they are not likely to develop". He added: "I have also become convinced that lengthening this trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarising effect this sorry affair has visited upon our nation."

The White House responded immediately, expressing the hope that a fair solution could now be found.

Yesterday's flurry of initiatives came on the seventh full day of the trial, as the 100 senators were promoted from passive listeners into active questioners - albeit silent ones, because their questions had to be submitted in writing to the presiding judge, Chief Justice William Rehnquist. But this second stage of the trial took place in a relaxed and almost drawing-room atmosphere that soon lightened further into something resembling a school end of term.

The procession of questions on the evidence and Constitutional niceties was punctured with laughter as the prospect of the President's removal receded to nothing.

The change of atmosphere owed much to the inspired performance of the former Democrat senator Dale Bumpers on Thursday, who had applied all rhetorical skills, scholastic knowledge and Senatorial experience to saving his Arkansas friend and political ally in what was acknowledged as one of the best speeches heard in the Senate for decades.