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The senate is to formally open its impeachment trial today with the swearing in of all 100 members and of Chief Justice William Rehnquist as presiding officer. But a bipartisan blueprint on how to proceed seemed to elude the leadership of a newly convened Congress. Some senators said official proceedings against President Clinton could begin as early as Monday, but questions about witnesses and the duration of a trial remained unanswered.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia said his vote "could go either way" on the articles of impeachment. The comment, during in an interview on C-SPAN, was the first indication that any of the 45 Senate Democrats might vote to convict Clinton.

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Newly inaugurated California Gov. Gray Davis (D) proposed that the University of California guarantee admission to the top 4 percent of students at each of the state's high schools. The proposal comes a year after the university ended its affirmative-action program. It currently admits the top 12.5 percent of all high school graduates. Taking 4 percent from every school is seen as a potential benefit to blacks and Hispanics at inner-city schools, as well as whites in rural districts that now send few students to college.

Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri said he would not run for president in 2000. Ashcroft, a favorite of Christian conservatives, spent 1998 preparing a White House bid. But he told supporters he would instead seek reelection to the Senate. Meanwhile another Republican, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, said he would form a presidential-exploratory committee tomorrow.

Mayor Bill Campbell said Atlanta will sue gun manufacturers to recover the costs of crimes involving firearms - following in the path of New Orleans and Chicago. The mayor said the strategy behind the lawsuit would be similar to that used by state attorneys general in suing the tobacco industry. He said no decision had been made on whether the suit would be filed in state or federal court, and he declined to say whether he favored a class-action suit.

Clinton plans to ask Congress for permission to close some military bases to help defray the cost of more defense spending, a White House official said. The request will be part of a proposal for the decade's first major increase in Pentagon spending. Confrontations with Iraq will help speed approval of more spending, but savings from closing bases are sure to face close scrutiny in Congress.

New home sales hit a record pace in November, the Commerce Department reported. It said sales increased from coast to coast, jumping 7.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 965,000. That surpassed the previous record rate of 919,000 set in June last year.

The White House forecast a federal budget surplus of $76 billion for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. It said the 1999 surplus would be the largest, in dollar terms, in US history. In November, the Congressional Budget Office projected a $63 billion surplus.

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