The Impeachment Of A President: Behind The Scenes - Folks on the Hill take up positions for trial of the century

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The Independent Online
AFTER A five-day helter-skelter of events that had pushed and jostled and raced each other into the news, political Washington was finally able to sit back yesterday, take a breath and consider the significance of what had happened.

The President had been impeached for only the second time in US history. The Democrats were united (almost) in defiant support of their leader; the Republicans were fending off meltdown for the second time in as many months. The political establishment was bitterly divided, and so was the country.

Even as Washington tried to relax, however, two competing developments were already in train. The methodical constitutional process was taking its course, preparing the way for the Senate trial that is the next and final stage of Mr Clinton's disgrace. And from the White House came the sounds of anxious wheeler-dealing in a last-ditch attempt to fend off the final - and irreversible - stage of impeachment: the removal from office of the country's 42nd President, Bill Clinton.

Within an hour of Saturday's impeachment votes, the House of Representatives had appointed nine managers to oversee the charges against Mr Clinton, and they had physically carried the two approved articles of impeachment across the Capitol Rotunda to the Senate. The House thus completed its role in the impeachment of the President. According to the constitution, the Senate is now obliged to hold a trial.

Less than two hours later, Mr Clinton, arm in arm with his wife, Hillary, appeared in the White House rose garden to hail the support of a crowd of House Democrats and insist that he would work "to the last hour of the last day of my term". He was flanked by his Vice-President, the still- wooden Al Gore, his almost cadaverously lean chief of staff, John Podesta, and the washed and brushed House minority leader, Dick Gephardt, an ensemble of solidarity that may or may not stand by him in the weeks to come.

Mrs Clinton, wearing an understated black trousersuit, had on her lapel the brooch that she had worn for her television interview back in January, when she had defended her husband and blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" for his troubles.

The golden eagle, holding a pearl in its talons, had become a tacit symbol among Democratic women of their support of the President. For Mrs Clinton to wear it on Saturday was to state that the Clintons were fighting on.

Mr Clinton indicated one direction of that fight, when he said that he hoped for a "constitutional and fair means of resolving this matter in a prompt manner". In other words, he was looking for a deal. The White House is said to have put out feelers across the political establishment in an attempt to find any solution that would stave off a Senate trial.

In the three weeks before his impeachment at the hands of a fractious and combative House, the White House had started to sue for peace. They had spoken of compromise and deals, and on the day before the vote, Mrs Clinton - in a rare recent intervention - had called for reconciliation.

The thrust of the Democrats' arguments, such as they were in the two- day House debate, also tended towards compromise, culminating in Mr Gephardt's eloquent, but frustrated plea for censure, rather than impeachment, in the last minutes of the debate.

In the rose garden, too, there was talk of olive branches and healing. Such pleas were not the strongest suit for the Democrats to present in the debate, but they might have a chance.

Some Republicans are believed to have voted for impeachment secure in the knowledge it was an indictment rather than a conviction and Mr Clinton would probably survive. The Democrats warned them that a vote for impeachment should not be treated as a warning shot across Mr Clinton's bows.

There is, however, a question about how many Republicans would have voted for impeachment if their majority in the Senate were greater than its current 10, or if they had believed that they were voting to convict rather than charge.

Misgivings among Republicans about removing Mr Clinton from office may yet open the way for a motion of censure or for a solution that has become known as "censure-plus" - that would incorporate a stiff fine, running into millions of dollars, and an understanding that Mr Clinton could face criminal charges on similar counts (perjury and obstruction of justice) once he leaves office.

The assumption in Washington - which may not, of course, be correct - is that the Senate has no appetite for removing Mr Clinton from office and would countenance a "plea-bargain" of the sort so common in American courts.

Among the intermediaries - in a poetic twist - is believed to be the man whom Mr Clinton defeated for the presidency in 1992: the former Republican Vice-President and former Senator, Bob Dole, who set out a five-point compromise two weeks ago and has the ear of senior senators.

The Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, however, stated categorically on the eve of the House debate that he would not stand for anything less than a trial. "No deal-making," he said.

The right wing of the Republican Party would agree, and this has led some to believe that a trial is inevitable. The only question then would be its duration, and the outcome.

The Senate convenes for its new session on 6 January. A trial could start as early as 11 January, but would probably take place later. One forecast is that it could be as short as a few days; another - that it could last several months, depending on whether witnesses are called, and how many.

Proceedings would be televised, but not the deliberations of the Senators - who may ask written questions but not speak during the trial.

A two-thirds majority of the 100-strong Senate is needed for conviction, which would require 12 Democrats to vote with the 55 Republicans. Currently, that scale of defections looks unlikely. But senators are regarded as wilful and quirky; at least two - Robert Byrd and Pat Moynihan - are sticklers for the Constitution and the law, and might change sides, taking others with them.

If, as in the House, the arguments move towards the high principles of a guardian of the law who lies under oath and away from "what did he touch and when did he touch it?", any vote could be closer than the White House would like. Which is why they will be investing so much effort over the holiday season in forging a deal.