Lott's Trial Balloon

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Susan Collins, the junior Senator from Maine, was sifting through a pile of Christmas cards at her home in Bangor one morning last week when the phone rang. "Hello, Susan!" said the smooth baritone voice on the other end of the line. It was Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, calling from his home in Pascagoula, Miss., and wanting to talk about the biggest issue to confront the Senate in a generation: the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Hearing from Lott was a relief to Collins, a moderate Republican in a Democratic-leaning state where the President remains popular. It was even more of a relief to hear his responses. When Collins said she wanted the trial to start soon--in the next two weeks--and to end quickly, Lott agreed with her. And when Collins said she didn't want the impeachment debate to become a food fight as it had in the House, where Republicans came across as hell-bent on forcing Clinton from office, Lott agreed again. He may not have addressed all her concerns, but, says Collins, "I was really pleased."

The next morning Lott made another important phone call, this one to Tom Daschle, the Senate's Democratic leader and the man serving as the White House's surrogate in negotiations over the structure of a trial. From his perch in Pascagoula, where he was juggling three phones and a fax machine while baby-sitting little Trent III, his seven-month-old grandson, Lott had been quietly collaborating with Daschle and other Senators on a plan to rush the impeachment issue through the Senate in just a few weeks. Daschle told Lott that the Democrats and the White House would go along with the idea, but Lott said he wasn't sure yet whether his fractious Republicans would do the same. The plan, which Lott would float publicly within hours, envisioned a sort of mini-trial, with opening arguments by prosecutors and the White House and few or no witnesses called by either side. After that would come a series of votes to determine whether the case against the President was strong enough to garner the 67 ayes, or two-thirds of the Senate, needed to remove Clinton from office. If, as Lott expected, the votes weren't there, the Senate would then consider a lesser punishment, such as censure. In an interview with TIME last week, Lott called the plan "a fair start" but conceded that "the situation is very fluid. It could be blown away by any number of people or events."

The explosions were nearly instantaneous. One Senate conservative, Oklahoma's James Inhofe, blasted Lott's gambit, telling reporters it was a "whitewash" designed to sacrifice the Constitution in the name of expediency. The 13 House impeachment "managers" who will prosecute the case in the Senate were particularly aggrieved by Lott's scheme, complaining that he had not even bothered to consult them before it became public. Drawn from the ranks of the House Judiciary Committee and led by its chairman, Henry Hyde, the managers have been preparing for their star turns as prosecutors in the trial of the century. When Lott floated his plan, a manager griped, "It was like, 'Hey, what about us?'" In a stern three-page letter to Lott, Hyde bristled at the idea that their engagement might be a limited one. "We need not sacrifice substance and duty for speed," Hyde wrote.

The rocky start to the Senate phase of impeachment was a bad sign for the man who has more at stake than anyone--with the obvious exception of the President. Since he took over as majority leader from Bob Dole in mid-1996, Trent Lott, 57, has not lived up to the widely held expectation that he would assume the role of the G.O.P.'s pre-eminent national leader. More a pragmatist than an ideologue, and more interested in passing legislation than in delivering visionary speeches, Lott has preferred immersing himself in the mechanics of running the Senate to playing the role of party sovereign. As the impeachment saga played out in the House, Lott watched quietly from across Capitol Hill, praying it would never reach the Senate.

Now that it has, Lott has the chance to be the leader who brings the scandal to a dignified conclusion. But he's not particularly happy about the opportunity. Lott knows that no matter what he does, he'll be attacked--"bashed by the left," he told TIME, or "criticized by people on the right." But he also knows that the outcome--and how the process will be judged by both the public and history--depends largely on him. "I realize that there's plenty of room to handle it properly or improperly," he said. "And I'm going to try to work in a way that everybody feels like they had their fair shot."

That is the elegance in the Lott proposal. After the mini-trial, there would be two votes on whether to conduct a full-blown trial, each requiring a two-thirds vote to go ahead. In the probable event they would fail, the trial would adjourn and the Senate would take up censure. Temporarily setting aside the messy issue of how to craft a censure resolution that would satisfy all sides, the obsessively punctilious Lott had devised an exit strategy that seemed to have something in it for everyone. Conservatives would get a trial, albeit a brief one, and a chance to go on the record with a vote showing their desire to convict. Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans would get the promise of an abbreviated, dignified process and the option of voting to censure Clinton when it's over. The White House, meanwhile, would avoid the kind of lengthy regurgitation of the evidence that could cause a slow erosion of support among the dozen Senate Democrats who stand between Clinton and an early helicopter ride out of town.

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