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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 18:31 GMT

The US Senate: partisan pomp

The Senate has an air of dignity but the politics are still partisan

by BBC Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur

Some of them take notes at top speed. Some fidget and whisper to colleagues, thereby risking the wrath of the Chief Justice. And some, just occasionally, find their eyelids becoming impossibly heavy as the still air and the drone of lawyers' voices makes sleep an irresistible temptation.

To be sure, this is not an easy month to be a senator.

The Senate Chamber is the stage on which the final act of the Clinton-Lewinsky drama is being played out. And the reviews are decidedly mixed.

Preoccupied with their own reputations, senators are a vain lot so there's much talk of the dignity of their deliberations.

[ image: Image is everything in the Senate]
Image is everything in the Senate
It's true that the Senate trial of William Jefferson Clinton has seen none of the histrionics and the name calling which disfigured the House of Representatives impeachment of the President, but it would be wrong to suggest that the courtesies of the Senate have taken partisanship out of the equation.

Political gamesmanship continues amid the hardwood desks and the marble busts of the Senate chamber. It's just conducted with a slap on the back, not an ideological snarl.

Republican senators are in a bind. They have a majority large enough to ensure they can set the rules of the trial, but not large enough to give them any realistic chance of removing this popular president from office.

That requires a two-thirds majority, and the Republicans have little hope of finding a dozen democrats prepared to kill off the Clinton Presidency.

Dilemma of the Republicans

So what we see in the Senate are Republicans desperately trying to face two ways at once.

They don't want the case against Mr Clinton to be dismissed out of hand. That would represent an unacceptable slap in the face to the Republican prosecutors from the House of Representatives and to the hordes of party activists across the nation. They regard Bill Clinton with about as much enthusiasm as bubonic plague.

On the other hand, Trent Lott and his colleagues know that dragging out the trial - replete with personal appearances from Monica Lewinsky and others - will further irritate an already disaffected public. Move on. Enough. Get over it. The message from middle America couldn't be clearer.

So the Senate, with its unique ability to conduct its own impeachment arguments behind closed doors is striving to find "an exit strategy," a procedural strategy which will not completely satisfy anyone, but will avoid the political warfare seen in the House.

It's too early to say whether the effort will succeed. But two things can be safely predicted - the final vote on Bill Clinton's fate will not be impartial and whatever the outcome Senators will rush out of the chamber to congratulate themselves on the dignity of their proceedings. That after all is the point of being a senator.

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