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Senate Trial of Clinton Opens

Impeachment: Political maneuvering, confusion over the course of the proceedings follow the orchestrated swearing-in ceremony. Both sides call truce, plan to meet today to craft blueprint for session.

January 08, 1999|EDWIN CHEN and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The impeachment trial of President Clinton opened in the Senate on Thursday with choreographed precision that began a day of intense political maneuvering and rampant confusion over how to conduct the proceeding.

At the end of the tumultuous day, Republicans and Democrats declared a truce and agreed to convene an extraordinary private meeting of all 100 senators this morning in hopes of crafting a bipartisan blueprint to govern the second presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history.

The session was announced Thursday evening by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) at a joint press conference in which both candidly acknowledged their failure thus far to forge a consensus in a deeply divided Senate.

"Sen. Daschle and I are not dictators. We are leaders . . . we have to bring along 98 other senators. We are struggling very hard to do that," Lott said. "We're asking the indulgence of the American people."

Even as the trial opened, Republicans and Democrats were at loggerheads over such fundamental issues as its duration and whether witnesses should be called.

That the Senate still was unable to agree on how to conduct the trial--almost three weeks after the House voted to impeach the president--underscores the political dilemma lawmakers face.

Many believe that it is their constitutional duty to follow through with a process that is perhaps more grave than anything--short of declaring war. Yet they know all too well that the American public has consistently registered an overwhelming desire for Congress to deal expeditiously with the controversy, without removing Clinton from office.

Clinton was impeached on Dec. 19 by the House of Representatives, which approved two articles of impeachment charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice in trying to conceal an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

The trial's solemn opening day began on a subtle note of partisanship as Vice President Al Gore spurned his constitutional prerogative by not showing up to preside, as he usually does at momentous Senate events.

Instead, the job of gaveling the Senate to order fell to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the 96-year-old Senate president pro tem.

A few minutes after 10 a.m., Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, leader of a 13-member House GOP team that will present the case against Clinton, entered through the chamber's back double-doors.

In measured half-steps, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee walked down the sloping center aisle, followed in a single file by the 12 assistant "managers"--all of them Republican members of his committee. It is their job to persuade at least 67 senators to remove Clinton from office.

In a straightforward monotone that belied the drama of the moment--not seen since the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson 131 years ago--Hyde took about 10 minutes to read the articles of impeachment.

Senators Sit Mute During Presentation

Standing at a movable lectern positioned in the well of the Senate, while his co-prosecutors arranged themselves before him in a semicircle--ironically, on the Democratic side of the chamber--Hyde issued a sobering indictment of the nation's 42nd president.

Clinton, Hyde informed the Senate, "has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the presidency, has betrayed his trust as president and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States."

During Hyde's presentation, most senators sat mute at their mahogany desks. Many wore serious and, in some cases, glum expressions.

"I was sad," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said later. "Sitting there today . . . it was kind of a foreboding thing to think that the coming weeks we're going to spend our time in an impeachment trial."

When Hyde finished, most senators stood silently at their desks as the House lawmakers exited. From his back-row seat at the aisle, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) shook hands with each Republican House member as they passed. The Senate then adjourned until shortly before 1 p.m.

At 1:20 p.m., six senators (three Republicans and three Democrats) escorted into the chamber U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who strode quickly to the presiding officer's desk, his ceremonial black robe flapping in his wake.

There, Thurmond administered to Rehnquist the oath of office as the trial's presiding officer.

Immediately after that, senators stood collectively as Rehnquist administered to them their oaths as jurors.

Rituals End With Roll Call

In the trial, the 91 men and nine women will have the power either to acquit the president or become the first senators in American history to fire a chief executive for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

The rituals ended with a formal roll call, in alphabetical order, with each senator standing to reaffirm his or her oath with a simple: "I do."

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