WASHINGTON — The Senate avoided one partisan brawl over the impeachment of President Clinton last week, but a larger battle is looming only two weeks down the road.
In effect, the Senate has merely agreed to postpone its next day of reckoning--until the last week in January.
By then, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and his colleagues will have presented their formal case against Clinton, and the White House will have presented its defense.
At that point, senators will face two fateful votes: First, whether to dismiss the case against Clinton as insufficient; second, if the case is not dismissed, whether to call witnesses and extend the trial for several more weeks.
While Clinton's lawyers met at the White House on Saturday to prepare their rebuttal, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) still was rejoicing that the Senate had on Friday approved a plan for conducting the impeachment trial.
Seeking a silver lining in a landscape of storm clouds, Lott said Saturday in the Republicans' weekly radio address that he hopes to deliver a trial that Americans will be "proud of," marked by "civility, order and fairness."
But over the next two weeks, those ambitions will be tested severely as the nation's zealous pro-Clinton and anti-Clinton camps focus all the political pressure they can marshal on the 100 members of the Senate, especially its divided Republican caucus.
Clinton's conservative opponents, now led by Hyde and his fellow "managers" from the House, appear intent on demanding that Senate Republicans support their strategy--a long trial with many witnesses--to maximize their chances of actually convicting the president and removing him from office.
On the other side, liberal Democrats in the Senate are already proclaiming that they will campaign fiercely against any Republican who votes to prolong the trial against the will of the public.
"If they vote to continue, then they're going down a very treacherous path," warned Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "They're really in the hot seat, in a way. People want this over."
So the Senate may have drawn back from what Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) called "a black pit of partisan self-indulgence," but the pit is still out there, beckoning.
"This bipartisanship is fragile," said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. "The potential for this process careening out of control is still there."
"If the Senate can insulate itself" from outside political pressures, "there is a chance of a bipartisan outcome," he said. "But if you try to settle these issues in a public setting, with the wind chamber outside whipping up partisan activists inside, that makes it very hard to prevent battle lines from forming.
"The Republicans have a very serious problem. There is no reasonable likely outcome that will satisfy the Republican right. The right is going to come out of this feeling bitter and betrayed."
Warnings From Conservative Senators
Already, some traditional Republican conservatives such as Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Ted Stevens of Alaska have taken pains to warn their supporters that amassing the 67-vote majority required to convict and remove the president still appears impossible in a Senate with only 55 Republicans.
"I don't think there's too much chance of getting 67 votes today," Stevens said last week. "It may be the House managers believe that they might be able to change some points of view. They have a right to try," he added, almost dismissively.
The House prosecution team has said that to present its case effectively, it needs to call as many as a dozen witnesses--including Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern with whom Clinton had an affair. Clinton's efforts to conceal their relationship led to the impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The House demand for witnesses appears likely to open a fault line within the Senate Republican caucus. Some younger conservatives, like Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), have indicated they favor calling witnesses. Some older conservatives, like Stevens, have said they hope to avoid it, at least in Lewinsky's case. And several moderates--a group that commands a larger percentage of the Senate than the ideologically polarized House--have spoken strongly against the idea. "I hope we don't need witnesses, frankly," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said.
Two other factors are affecting the Republicans' decisions. One is the fact that an unusually high number of GOP senators, 19, faces reelection in two years--and senators, who run statewide, often pay more attention to general public opinion polls than House members who run in markedly conservative or liberal districts.
A second factor, according to many senators, is the burden of history: the knowledge that whatever action they take in the trial of Clinton will be final, unlike the intermediate-step impeachment voted by the House.