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Washington Journal: Clinton Impeachment Trial Nears An End

Washington, 9 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With the acquittal of U.S. President Bill Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice practically a foregone conclusion, talk in Washington is turning to what will happen to the president after the trial.

It was not clear on Monday what action, if any, the U.S. Senate will take once the trial ends. The end is expected Friday, possibly as early as Thursday, when the 100 senators vote "guilty" or "innocent" on each of the two charges lodged against Clinton.

Conviction, which could lead to removal from office, on either charge requires agreement by 67 senators. Clinton is a Democrat and has maintained all along that the impeachment proceedings were motivated by a desire by his Republican Party opponents to drive him from office. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate by only 55-45, and no senator who has expressed a public opinion on the issue believes there will be enough votes to convict on either charge.

The impeachment articles, the charges, were approved by the House of Representatives -- which is also dominated by the Republicans -- in December. The articles claim that Clinton committed the alleged crimes in an effort to conceal a sexual affair he had had with a former White House worker named Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton has admitted what he called an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky but denies breaking any laws. Since August, Clinton has made several public apologies for his behavior and indicated that he would accept some sort of public rebuke from either chamber of the U.S. Congress.

During the December debate on whether to impeach Clinton the House overwhelmingly rejected a Democratic Party motion to censure the president. However, almost from the beginning of the trial in the Senate one month ago, a number of senators spoke of passing a resolution to censure the president for his conduct once the constitutional requirement for a trial had been met.

On Monday, however, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of the midwestern state of South Dakota said a resolution to censure Clinton would need support from about 20 Republicans to succeed.

Daschle, and other Democrats in the Senate, have said that while they disapprove of Clinton's conduct, they do not believe that the delegation from the House Judiciary Committee that is prosecuting the president has proven the charges against him. But Daschle also said the Democrats want "to make a historic statement of record," on Clinton's conduct.

Most of the Republican senators are expected to vote for the impeachment articles, but if those votes fail many of the Republicans feel that a follow-up vote to censure would be too little punishment and set a bad constitutional precedent.

Senators from both parties have been working on a censure statement, but the resolution would be debated only after the Senate voted on the impeachment charges. However, several Republican senators are so strongly opposed to a censure that they would be expected to use a parliamentary maneuver called a filibuster to prevent a vote on any censure resolution.

In a filibuster, which is only permitted in the Senate, any senator may rise and speak for as long as he or she wishes and on any subject in order to obstruct the passage of legislation. A senator could literally read aloud every name in a telephone book. The objective is to make the other side so weary that it gives up. A filibuster can be blocked, but that requires agreement by 60 senators.

Daschle told reporters Monday that it is "in everybody's interest" to consider a censure immediately after the trial ends and before the Senate takes a holiday recess next week.

Final arguments by both sides, the House prosecutors and Clinton's defense lawyers, were held Monday. Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from the midwestern state of Wisconsin, rebutted the White House charge that the impeachment proceedings were nothing more than a political vendetta.

He told the Senate that the House prosecutors were motivated not by ill feelings toward Clinton but by their love for the U.S. Constitution and their respect for the office of president. He said no president, no matter how popular, should be allowed to place himself above the law. Sensenbrenner said:

"If the president does not suffer the legal and constitutional consequences of his actions, the impact of allowing the president to stand above the law will be felt for generations to come."

"For the sake of our country and for future generations, please find the president guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice when you cast your votes."

Clinton's chief defense lawyer, Charles Ruff, conceded that the president's personal conduct was wrong. But he also called on the Senate to acquit the president for the sake of the U.S. Constitution. Ruff said:

"We know the pain the president has caused our society and his family and his friends, but we know too how much the president has done for this country. And more importantly we know that our primary obligation, the duty we all have, is to preserve that which the Founders (of the country) gave us, and we can best fulfill that duty by carefully traveling the path that they laid out for us."

With the final arguments finished, the senators now move into deliberations, probably behind closed doors, with the vote on the two articles expected Thursday or Friday.

Clinton was in Jordan on Monday to attend the funeral of King Hussein. He does not have to be present in the Senate, and his plans for Friday are still not known. Clinton is only the second president in U.S. history to stand trial on impeachment articles in the Senate. President Andrew Johnson was acquitted by just one vote in 1868.

The Senate has passed a resolution of censure against a president on only one other occasion. In 1834, the political opponents of President Andrew Jackson passed a resolution condemning Jackson for what was called his despotic assumption of powers. However, three years later when Jackson's fellow Democrats took control of the Senate again, the Senate rescinded the censure resolution.