WASHINGTON (Reuters)– The Senate launched the first presidential impeachment trial in more than 130 years on Thursday–sitting in judgment on whether President Bill Clinton should be removed from office for high crimes and misdemeanors. A group of 13 House of Representatives managers who will act as prosecutors walked across the Capitol into the Senate chamber–where House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde read two articles of impeachment alleging Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice in hiding his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Senators sat solemnly as Hyde read the articles–passed on largely party-line votes by the House in December. Senators and spectators were instructed by the sergeant-at-arms to remain silent on "pain of imprisonment." Chief Justice William Rehnquist will be sworn in as presiding officer of the trial at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT)–followed by the swearing in of all 100 senators as jurors. How the Senate proceeds from there is unclear–as senators engaged in a frenzied blitz of closed-door meetings and strategy sessions to determine how long the trial should last and whether witnesses would be called as requested by Hyde. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said a plan was forming that would allow opening argumen’s by the House prosecutors and the White House–with decisions on witnesses postponed until later. "Go ahead and get started–let’s begin to hear the case and we’ll make decisions as we go forward," Lott told reporters after the articles were read. "I’m not sure that you can preordain or lock in everything that will happen down the line. I think you kind of have to get started and see what they have to say." Lott called a meeting of all 100 senators in the old Senate chamber after the swearing in to try to nail down an agreement–which he said would be written out and presented to senators for discussion. "To write a prescription that takes us to the absolute end of this at the beginning is awfully hard to do," Lott said. "You don’t know what the evidence will reveal. You don’t know what the tempo will be." Democrats have objected to witnesses–which they say will open the door to a prolonged and contentious trial that could break down into the kind of partisan rancour exhibited during the House impeachment inquiry. The White House has been eager to avoid a trial that would include witnesses and potentially damaging new evidence and to bring the matter to a close as soon as possible.
The rules of the Senate would require a majority vote of 51 senators to issue subpoenas–meaning six Republicans could join Democrats to block their being called.
Among the witnesses House managers have said they might call are key players in the scandal drama such as Lewinsky and Clinton secretary Betty Currie.
"I believe that there are a number of moderate Republicans who just don’t want to see the debacle of Monica Lewinsky on the floor of the Senate," said Sen. Tom Harkin–an Iowa Democrat. "What will this degenerate into? Where did he touch you? How did he touch you? How did it feel?"’
The need for witnesses could depend on how much evidence the White House and prosecutors fail to accept. Hoping to head off witnesses or the presentation of new evidence–the White House said on Thursday it would be willing to accept the evidence presented by the House in its impeachment report.
"We’re willing to have the case tried based on that record," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.
Senators in both parties were not overly impressed with the offer–however–with Republicans noting the White House had not disputed the allegations made by independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the House impeachment inquiry.
"The Senate is going to decide what is going to be allowed in and what won’t," Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said.
"Ultimately we’ll make that decision and it will be one that both the White House and the House of Representatives will have to live with."
A bipartisan group of senators huddled with White House lawyers at the Capitol for over an hour on Wednesday night–trying to map out how the trial will proceed. The White House described the meeting as constructive.
Lott said late Wednesday the trial could go into mid-February but "the date is not as important as that we have a process that is understandable–an opportunity for the trial… and a vote on the articles of impeachment."
A two-thirds vote of senators would be required to convict Clinton and remove him from office–which at this point is considered unlikely.
Clinton’s popularity remains strong–and a new CNN poll showed that 63 percent of Americans oppose his removal from office–compared to 33 percent who want him ousted.
The Senate is holding its first impeachment trial in more than 130 years. President Andrew Johnson survived his impeachment trial by one vote in 1868.