Lott's Trial Balloon

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But for Lott to succeed with his or any other plan, he'll have to placate not only Hyde and his fellow House prosecutors but also conservatives within his own caucus in the Senate. Suspicious that their leader is in the process of cutting an accommodating prefab deal--just as he did during last year's budget negotiations--some conservatives, like Inhofe, are already rebelling. To be done with the unpleasant duty of the trial, they claim, Lott is running roughshod over the Constitution and the rule of law, all in the service of rescuing the President. "Trent cannot be perceived as Bill Clinton's savior," says a top G.O.P. leadership aide. "This is high stakes for Lott," says Sheila Burke, top aide to Bob Dole for years and now executive dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Lott's dilemma is his right wing. They want a piece of flesh."

Another obstacle in Lott's way is his own propensity to blurt things out that he'd be better off keeping to himself--what a G.O.P. Senator described last week as "Trent's foot-in-mouth disease." It struck last summer, when Lott compared homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania, and again in mid-December, when he attacked the President's motives for launching air strikes on Iraq. Then it appeared one more time last week, when Lott went public with the outline of his plan for a streamlined impeachment trial without warning anyone on his staff, clearing it with any of his Senate colleagues or checking with House leaders. "This was not supposed to get out so early," complained a Senator close to the deal. But Lott acted impulsively. Stung by stories suggesting that he had taken refuge in Pascagoula while Washington was burning, the former head cheerleader from his days at Ole Miss wanted to set the record straight. "I wasn't hiding out," Lott explained. "I was working it."

In fact, Lott began thinking about ways he could avert a full-blown Senate trial in the days before the House voted to impeach Clinton on Dec. 19. "Trent has no interest in helping Bill Clinton," says a senior G.O.P. Senate official who knows Lott well. "But Trent wants to run the Senate. He doesn't want this thing screwing up the whole year." Lott also knew he couldn't scotch a trial entirely without enraging conservatives. So he went on television three weeks ago to insist that there would be a trial and "there won't be any dealmaking." But even as Lott spoke, one of his closest allies in the Senate, Washington's Slade Gorton, was quietly negotiating a deal with Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who had strongly criticized Clinton's behavior but who is advocating censure. Acting as surrogates for the Senate leaders, Gorton and Lieberman were the original authors of the plan for a mini-trial without witnesses. But Lott was deeply involved, calling Lieberman on several occasions as the plan came together.

For any deal aimed at shortening a trial to work, Lott knew he had to have the White House's tacit agreement not to call witnesses. He also needed assurances from Lieberman and Daschle that Clinton would not make a mockery of Lott's work by celebrating the Senate's turn to censure as a vindication of his behavior. In the wake of the House's partisan vote to impeach--and the polls showing the public siding overwhelmingly with Clinton--the early talk in the White House was more about combat than compromise. As a senior White House official put it, "There's a part of [Clinton's] mind that says a trial would be useful."

But at a meeting of the President's senior political advisers and lawyers last week, bravado gave way to pragmatism, and a decision was made to go along with the Lott plan. Better to end it quickly, the thinking went, while the White House could be sure that Republicans lacked the 67 votes to convict. Chief of staff John Podesta told Daschle that the White House was on board, but both sides agreed that it was important to play down any White House role in the deal for fear Republicans might reject it. "Right now, this is the Lott plan," said a senior Clinton aide. "He will eventually take pieces from everyone, but the whole game now is Lott." To help Lott quell his rebellion, the White House offered to make a tiny concession: Clinton lawyers will not dispute that the testimony taken by Starr is accurately reported--a move that might placate some G.O.P. Senators. But the President's team reserves the right to challenge the truth of that testimony as well as Starr's conclusions. That way, if the Lott plan collapses and a full-scale trial seems inevitable, the President's team won't have sacrificed its defense for the sake of a failed compromise.

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