WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans rejected a bid to dismiss President Clinton's impeachment trial Wednesday, pushed through their own plan to question three witnesses in the case and then immediately began talks with Democrats on how to end the trial by mid-February.
Although the dismissal motion lost, 56 to 44, the vote was a noteworthy victory for Democrats--and Clinton--because it showed what until now has only been surmised: The two-thirds majority needed to convict the president of "high crimes and misdemeanors" simply is not there, barring some major unforeseen development.
"The president will not be removed from office," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) declared moments after the votes. "For the good of the country, and in keeping with the Constitution, it is now time to end this trial. It is now time to move on."
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) ignored such talk and focused instead on the logistics of deposing the witnesses, all proposed by House Republican prosecutors. "I feel good about where we are and we'll go forward," Lott said.
The questioning of the witnesses--Monica S. Lewinsky, whose affair with Clinton sparked the impeachment case, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal--could occur as soon as this weekend.
As of Wednesday night, however, Lott and Daschle were unable to agree on a blueprint governing the logistics of the depositions, as well as the remainder of the trial.
Before leaving the Capitol, Lott said that both sides hoped to unveil an agreement today that will win the blessings of Republicans and Democrats.
The vote approving witnesses mirrored the vote rejecting dismissal, 56 to 44. The witness issue had loomed as the most contentious procedural hurdle since the Senate trial began earlier this month.
Except for Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin--the Democrat who twice sided with the GOP majority--back-to-back votes Wednesday broke along party lines, thus infecting the process anew with a stark dose of partisanship.
"Calling witnesses will not serve any good purpose but will, instead, only intensify the spread of the cancer of the bitter political partisanship on the Senate floor and throughout the nation," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), author of the defeated motion to dismiss.
With the approval of the witness list, the immediate challenge facing Lott and Daschle as they renewed their negotiations was to agree on the array of details surrounding the depositions--such as who may attend, how much time will be allowed to depose each witness and whether the sessions will be videotaped.
Some Democrats expressed the hope that the three witnesses will add nothing new to the record--and thus that the White House would forgo asking to call its own witnesses.
In such a case, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, the trial could then go right to final arguments and votes on the two articles of impeachment.
Republicans had offered a plan that they said could end the proceeding within 10 days--if the president's lawyers do not want to call witnesses.
The GOP plan also contained a proposal to allow the Senate to adopt a "finding of fact," putting the chamber on record as stating that the allegations against Clinton are true--even though members do not convict him, which would automatically lead to his removal from office. But Democrats are vehemently opposed to that suggestion.
Republicans Balk at Trial Deadline
Another snag surfaced when some Republican senators expressed opposition to a plan to set a time certain for the trial to end--because they fear that might foreclose the opportunity to call live witnesses, as sought by the House prosecutors, sources said Wednesday night.
Before leaving the Capitol for the night, Lott and Daschle said that the two sides were narrowing their differences and that the final plan could end the trial by Feb. 12.
The two key roll-call votes early Wednesday afternoon came after more than 55 hours of arguments by House GOP prosecutors and White House lawyers and on the 13th day of the nation's second-ever presidential impeachment trial.
Although senators had approached the trial vowing to avoid the rancor and divisiveness that imbued the House impeachment process, the votes revealed that the 100-member "upper body" is not immune to the tenacious grasp of party politics.
Aside from Feingold, the other 44 Senate Democrats--including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein--voted to dismiss the case. Even if all 55 Republicans voted to oust Clinton, they would need the support of 12 Democrats to reach the required two-thirds majority.
By prior agreement, there was no floor debate preceding Wednesday's votes. Each had been debated by the Senate in closed sessions earlier this week.
The two roll-call votes began as soon as the Senate was gaveled to order a few minutes after 10 a.m. PST by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the trial's presiding officer.