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A congressional culture clash

Will the Senate can him or cane him?

That is the question facing the president and us for the New Year. We begin '99 in vast wonderment. Will the Senate ratify the impeachment voted by the House, or draw up a searing censure motion which will say basically that Bill Clinton is no good but should stay in his great office?

As of this writing, the answer is shrouded in fog and the babble of many voices.

One thing people hadn't counted on was the interaction between the House and the Senate, two vastly different institutions that in ordinary times try to ignore each other. Impeachment, however, brings them into intimate contact.

The House has sent over a squadron of 13 impeachers who will actually "manage" the trial. The idea that anyone can manage the U.S. Senate or tell it what to do is preposterous on the face of it. Can anyone imagine the world's greatest deliberative body taking orders from what it habitually refers to as "the other body"? In any case, the relationship is off to an exceptionally bad start, and no wonder.

The Senate is like a dowager, very slow-moving and fussy about her prerogatives, appearance and dignity. The House is more of an urchin, quick, mischievous, rambunctious. The urchin is getting on the dowager's nerves, throwing spitballs, trying to peek under her skirts, making a lot of noise.

House Republicans have an enormous political and emotional investment in their impeachment, and they are lobbying for its ratification with all the grace and skill of a bull in a china shop.

Their de facto leader, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, opened the offensive with strong words that showed beyond anything that he suffers acutely from the Starr syndrome. The independent counsel, Ken Starr, was under the impression that the more disgusting detail he included in his report, the greater the public outrage would be. Instead, he ended up driving Clinton's approval rating through the roof. The country was furious, not at Clinton for doing what he did, but at Starr for telling about it. The lesson was lost on the man they call "The Hammer." He has gone through town with trumpet and drum, peddling pornography. If senators would just go to the Ford building and look through the confidential archives of the House Judiciary Committee, they would discover such secrets about sordid amours in the White House as would cause the necessary 67 votes to "come out of thin air" in the Senate.

It has been noted that the steamy material is not part of the record, that none of it was judged material to the two counts of impeachment that passed on Dec. 19.

Tactless as DeLay was, he was outdone by another impeachment fanatic, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia. Barr was pro-impeachment almost from the moment Clinton took the oath. His contribution to bicameral harmony has been to suggest that the senators are _ well, not to put too fine a point on it _ a little bit slow.

"A senator's attention span is probably less than an average juror's," he said, "so we'll need to simplify, simplify, simplify."

The battle over procedure changes every day, with every day more discord among Republicans. Democrats are standing shoulder to shoulder _ unanimous as ever under the leadership of Tom Daschle _ ready to defend a president they have never liked very much and save his job. But House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde is publicly scolding Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for showing unseemly haste in resolving the fate of Bill Clinton.

The "managers" want to call witnesses, which of course leads to the spectacle of the chief justice in all the splendor of his gold hash marks, questioning Monica Lewinsky about exactly what parts of her anatomy the leader of the Western world touched during their dalliances, while senators sit silently by.

Will Monica claim any new victims in the Senate process? Flacking her exclusive interview, to be aired in February, Barbara Walters pronounced Lewinsky "nothing more than a girl in love." Maybe. But she must look to Republicans like one of those ancient vengeful deities who demanded human sacrifices. She has brought down two speakers, Newt Gingrich and his designated successor, Bob Livingston.

Leader Lott is thrashing about, fighting on two fronts. He has a civil war in his own party, some howling for a full-dress trial and Clinton's head, a few wanting to make accommodation with public opinion for a rapid resolution. He has the Democrats pressing for dispatch and censure.

Clinton thinks he has problems, and he does. But the Republicans, who thought evicting him would be the most fun they ever had, are almost as anxious as he is.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate