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Pretrial Maneuvers

Military officers are warned that once a war begins, its course is unpredictable. Lawyers often warn their clients that once a case goes to trial, the outcome is never guaranteed.

President Clinton's lawyers are trying to keep him out of court after he leaves office. It would have been better to keep him out of an earlier court - the United States Senate.

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Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and minority leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, are finding that controlling the course of Mr. Clinton's trial on the House's articles of impeachment is easier said than done. Democrats are united around the proposition that the charges should be dismissed, and the sooner the better. They support the proposal by Sens. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington and Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut for a truncated trial: The Senate would hear each side's opening statements and pose written questions. Senators would then vote on whether the offenses alleged are "high crimes and misdemeanors." If less than two-thirds agree that they are, the trial would end and the Senate would move to a censure resolution.

But Senator Lott can't gather a majority of GOP senators behind the idea. Many don't necessarily want a long trial, but balk at the suggestion that House managers would be precluded from calling witnesses and setting out their full case against the president. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois insists that a trial with witnesses need not be prolonged. Senate Democrats, who want no witnesses, warn there's no guarantee of that. So the Senate may formally begin the trial with no agreement on how to proceed. Negotiations continue.

The outlook for censure as an alternative, one we believe is appropriate, remains murky. Several Republicans say censure is unconstitutional and would set a precedent that would threaten the separation of powers. Some might try a filibuster.

GOP senators face conflicting demands. They know it's unlikely the Senate will convict Clinton and that the public dislikes the process. They need to protect colleagues up for reelection in 2000. But they don't want to give the impeachment articles short shrift and saw off the limb House Republicans crawled out on.

Once the trial begins it will proceed in whatever direction a majority vote determines. If the 45 Democrats can get at least six Republicans to go along, they could shut the trial down at any time and acquit the president.

House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas suggests senators should take into account secret evidence in the materials handed over to the House Judiciary Committee. That's wrong. The president deserves the same due process as any other American. He should be tried only on the articles of impeachment (and their supporting evidence) that the House saw fit to pass.

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