Senate Republicans this week will decide whether to cut short an impeachment trial of President Clinton, or whether to go ahead with a full trial that could involve steamy testimony from such witnesses as Monica Lewinsky, last for weeks, and force Clinton to postpone his State of the Union speech to Congress.
Senators return to Washington this week and gather Wednesday for the first time since the House of Representatives impeached Clinton on Dec. 19. Divided over how to proceed, Senate Republicans will meet Thursday to decide whether to go along with a compromise plan that could cut the trial short after four days.
"None of us have been together since this whole discussion began and I don't know how that's going to come out," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., one of the party's chief political strategists in the Senate, in an appearance on ABC.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., an author of the compromise plan, said it is still unclear how the Senate will handle the first impeachment trial of a president in 130 years.
"I hope we will have an expedited trial, because that is what's best for the country," Lieberman said on NBC. "But we've got a few days for senators, as we come back to Washington, to work out a procedure together, or else this is going to fall into the kind of partisan rancor that we had before."
Lieberman and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., are proposing a plan that would start the trial with the House making its argument for convicting Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice in covering up his affair with Lewinsky and removing him from office.
On the second day, the White House would argue against removing the president from office. On the third, senators would ask questions of both sides. And on the fourth, the Senate would take a test vote to see if 67 senators believed the crimes would warrant removal from office. If there were not 67 votes to proceed _ the same number that would be needed to convict _ the trial would be suspended.
"If far fewer than two-thirds of the senators vote yes on that proposition, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of point in putting the country through all of this firsthand testimony, whether it's from Monica Lewinsky or the president himself, for a foregone conclusion," said Gorton.
Given that conclusion, the Senate could then end the trial altogether by a majority vote. To do that, at least six Republicans would have to join 45 Senate Democrats.
Democrats widely favor the plan because they believe there would never be 67 votes to convict Clinton. It would take at least 12 Democratic votes to convict the Democratic president if all 55 Republicans votes for conviction.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has been weighing the Gorton-Lieberman proposal as a way to find bipartisan support for a trial schedule. On Sunday, two influential Republicans signaled they might go along.
"I would vote for such a plan," Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said on CBS, although he added that it might have be amended to draw more support.
McConnell said he would consider it if he does not get his first wish, a quick vote on conviction or acquittal.
But several Senate Republicans said Sunday that they want to go ahead with a trial and go all the way to a vote on conviction or acquittal.
"The Constitution calls for a trial," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., said on NBC.
"It's not that I want a trial. I'd love to get on with other things," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, also on NBC. "But the point is, that's the constitutional process."
If the trial does last more than four days, it could easily stretch into the week of Jan. 19, the day when Clinton is scheduled to appear before a joint session of the Senate and House to deliver his annual State of the Union address. Several senators said Sunday that Clinton should postpone the address if the trial is under way.
"It would be unseemly and distracting for the president to be giving a state of the union address to Congress while he was under trial in the Senate," Gorton said.
Added Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., "It's inappropriate to report on the state of the union as long as the president is under impeachment, because the state of the union from the perspective of his administration is unclear."