After a tense three days, two closed-door debates and prolific late-night bargaining, the 100 senators finally dispatched two crucial votes yesterday and set a provisional timetable for completing the trial. In back-to-back votes that had themselves been the object of fierce horse-trading, senators rejected a motion by the Democrat Robert Byrd to have the case dismissed, and voted then for a highly circumscribed motion to call witnesses.
The list, pared down to three as part of a deal to guarantee its passage, comprises the woman at the centre of the affair, Monica Lewinsky; Mr Clinton's businessman-friend Vernon Jordan, and Sidney Blumenthal, special adviser to the White House and reputed to be the orchestrator of its media "dirty tricks".
The motion, which also called for Mr Clinton to be "invited" to answer more questions, provided for witnesses to be submitted to videotaped questioning, under oath, but not in the Senate chamber. A decision would be taken subsequently on whether they should be called to the Senate to testify in person.
Democrats fear witnesses could disclose new details and tip the balance against Mr Clinton. They are especially concerned about Ms Lewinsky, who impressed the grand jury last year and House prosecutors last week with her credibility and charm.
But there is also a view, shared by some Republicans, that calling witnesses to the Senate chamber would lower the tone and reduce proceedings to something akin to The Jerry Springer Show, a television programme specialising in slanging matches about sex that frequently descend into physical fights.
The White House, whose lawyers have strenuously opposed calling witnesses, renewed its objections yesterday hours before the votes. The spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said: "It's a fundamental issue of fairness, that the White House gets access to the same documentation that the House has." He accused Republicans of changing the rules because they knew they did not have the 67 votes (two-thirds majority) that they need to convict the President.
On Tuesday Mr Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, said that if the Senate called additional witnesses, "we will be faced with a critical need for the discovery of evidence useful to our defence". The threat was summarised by The Washington Post as meaning: "If you call witnesses, we'll fight back. And that could take a long, long time." It was dismissed by many Republicans as bluff.
In an implicit response to objections from the White House and Democrats, Republicans accompanied preparations for yesterday's votes with a provisional timetable for bringing the trial to an end.
Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, who has become an authoritative spokesman for the Republican majority, said the witnesses could be heard over the weekend, their interviews limited in time and subject, and taped. Transcripts would be supplied to senators on Monday, and the decision taken on calling any or all of them.
A final vote on the two articles of impeachment - perjury and obstruction of justice - would be on 5 or 6 February.
There was no immediate response from House prosecutors, who have masterminded the case against Mr Clinton in the Senate, or from Senate Democrats, about whether they had agreed such a timetable, and practical difficulties were already on the horizon. Mr Jordan was reported to be out of the country and Mr Blumenthal had not been reached. Ms Lewinsky left Washington on Tuesday but her lawyer said she would return if necessary.
Whatever the witnesses divulged seemed unlikely to alter the outcome. If sentiment continues to divide along party lines, the Republicans' 55 votes are insufficient to convict the President and the Democrats' vote is unlikely to split, leaving Republicans at least 12 votes short of the two-thirds they would need to convict and remove Mr Clinton from office.Reuse content