Senate sits in secret as trial climax looms

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The Independent Online
THE IMPEACHMENT trial of President Bill Clinton entered a crucial stage in Washingtonyesterday, with the Senate voting to debate in private a motion submitted by the senior Democrat, Robert Byrd, to dismiss the case forthwith.

The hitherto genteel proceedings in the Senate were shot through with acrimony and division, and the prospect of a bad-tempered stalemate was never far away. The day's session got under way only after two hours of on-off procedural wrangling. Senators convened and adjourned no fewer than three times after the scheduled starting time of 1pm before agreement was reached even on the order of the day.

When the day's opening statements were finally delivered - the only part of proceedings open to reporters - no quarter was given. "Where is the repentance, the contrition?" asked Charles Canady for the House prosecutors of President Clinton's attitude.

"He has never accepted ... responsibility for breaking the law, never accepted his violation of his duty as President.

"To this day he remains absolutely unrepentant."

"Who took an oath and failed to tell the truth before the courts of our land? It was the President," said another of the House team, Asa Hutchinson.

For the White House, Nicole Seligman - in her first presentation to the trial - set out in detail the judicial and constitutional arguments against removing the President from office. She spoke of the "poisonous arrows of partisanship" that threatened the trial, and concluded: "It is truly in the best interests of this nation to end this ordeal in this chamber at this time and in this way. There is no case for conviction."

The vote to hold the debate in private went largely along party lines, with a majority of Republicans voting to close it and most Democrats favouring the continued presence of the media. The rules for an impeachment trial stipulate a closed debate, which gave Republicans a constitutional pretext for holding it in camera.

Their political reluctance to be seen lambasting a popular President in full view of the voters, could not be ruled out, and it was significant that the two senators from Mr Clinton's home state of Arkansas, one a Democrat, both voted to hold yesterday's debate in private. It was scheduled to last into the evening. The vote that followed was expected to fall along party lines, meaning that the trial will proceed.

The fact that the dismissal motion was submitted by Senator Byrd, who at 81 is regarded as a guardian of constitutional procedures, was thought likely to preserve Democrats' solidarity. But Republicans were also expected to vote en bloc, leaving Democrats short of the 51 majority they need to end the trial at once.

Throughout yesterday, Capitol Hill swirled with rumours of plans and initiatives designed to bring the impeachment saga to an end. The first proposals, by the Democrats, for a "mutual withdrawal of forces" and a week of preparation for the final vote on the Articles of Impeachment, however, were summarily rejected by Republicans, who ploughed on with what was called Plan A, the dismissal motion, to be followed by a debate and vote on whether witnesses should be called.

Patience on both sides was growing thin, however. With the 67 votes needed to convict and remove Mr Clinton clearly not there, pressure was mounting from both sides and from public opinion, to halt an exercise increasingly deemed to be futile. In a poll taken at the weekend, 60 per cent of those asked - and half of all Republicans asked - said they thought it was time to end the trial.

The row about witnesses, was ready to flare up again just as soon as senators turned their minds to it. It was crystallised in the figure of Monica Lewinsky, who remained holed up in a Washington hotel yesterday after meeting House prosecutors on Sunday.

That appeared to have resolved nothing, with the prosecution team insisting she would be "a very helpful witness", but her own lawyers saying their client had "added nothing to the record".

The New York Times yesterday reported Ms Lewinsky as having told an unidentified friend: "I gave them nothing", a clear message to the White House that the President had nothing to fear.