The House Republican drive to convict and remove President Clinton on perjury and obstruction charges showed signs of collapse Friday as a pivotal Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, announced he will propose that the articles of impeachment be dismissed.
Only 10 days ago, Byrd indicated he opposed any early dismissal of the charges by the Senate. And he had been counted on by Republicans as one Democrat who might play a key role in leading other Democrats to desert the president.
But Byrd of West Virginia, a former Senate majority leader, doused those hopes as he announced he is "convinced the necessary two-thirds for conviction are not there and are not likely to develop."
A vote to dismiss the charges could come as soon as Monday afternoon.
Byrd's proposal was roundly criticized by the House managers prosecuting the case, but moments after its release, Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah suddenly proposed an exit strategy for the Senate.
"We could literally file a motion to adjourn," said Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"If there is an absolute guarantee and proof you do not have 67 votes or anywhere near it," Hatch said, "you would go with a statement recognizing the House vote . . . and an acknowledgment that the House vote of impeachment is the highest form of condemnation of the president's despicable acts."
Democrats said Byrd's surprise decision to sponsor the motion improved its chances of passage, and at least one Republican senator, Alabama's Richard Shelby, said four or five GOP members are "actively considering" voting with Democrats to wind up the trial.
But other Republican senators said the Byrd move would fail. Behind the scenes, senators from both parties have been discussing strategies to bring the trial to a close.
Meanwhile, in a late development Friday, House impeachment prosecutors obtained Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's help in attempting to force Monica S. Lewinsky's to talk to them, contending her immunity agreement requires it, two congressional officials confirmed.
Starr's prosecutors and lawyers for Ms. Lewinsky went to court late Friday afternoon to argue whether she had to cooperate. U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson made no immediate ruling.
Lead prosecutor Henry Hyde, R-Ill., wrote Starr Thursday seeking his help with Ms. Lewinsky, who rejected being interviewed by the House team.
Two House sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hyde cited Ms. Lewinsky's immunity agreement with Starr in his letter.
The July 28 agreement said Ms. Lewinsky "will testify truthfully before grand juries in this district (Washington) and elsewhere, at any trials in this district and elsewhere, and in any other executive, military, judicial or congressional proceedings."
In his announcement, Byrd also came out against calling witnesses and said that continuing the trial would only unnecessarily drag out the saga of Clinton's affair with Ms. Lewinsky and the impeachment articles it spawned.
Texas Republican Phil Gramm called Byrd's motion "inappropriate."
"I believe it will be defeated and this trial will go the distance," he said.
To dismiss the case and end the trial, six Republican senators would have to join the 45 minority Democrats -- assuming all Democrats support dismissal -- to get the required majority vote.
At least 12 Democrats would have to join 55 majority Republicans to convict and remove Clinton.
Republican senators plan to caucus today before the start of another question-and-answer session, and the various plans for short-circuiting the case are expected to come up.
Hyde instantly issued his own rebuttal to Byrd's announcement:
"We hope and expect that the Senate will reject this motion and continue an expeditious search for the facts," the Illinois Republican said.
Later, answering a question in the Senate trial, Hyde said that dismissal would be "cavalier treatment" of impeachment and urged that the trial go on.
"I know what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body," he said. "But we are a constitutional annoyance and I remind you of that fact."
Byrd announced his position in a press release delivered without fanfare to the Senate press gallery just after he asked a question of the White House lawyers which suggested that he was deeply troubled by the president's behavior.
He asked if it wasn't true that Clinton "abused and violated his public trust by lying under oath."
The president's lead counsel, Charles F.C. Ruff, took a deep breath and said that even it were proved the president lied, "It does not, and it must not lead to his removal from office."
Byrd later said, "I plan to make this motion not because I believe the president did no wrong. In fact, he has caused his family, his friends, and this nation great pain. I believe he has weakened the already fragile public trust that has been placed in his care.
"I have . . . become convinced that lengthing his trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter, and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited on our nation."
Byrd said the nation needs a period of "healing and reconciling." He said nothing about how Congress would otherwise call the president to account.
Ruff and David Kendall, another Clinton attorney, warned that if the Republicans succeeded in a Senate vote to call witnesses, that would keep the trial going into the spring.
"It would be malpractice," Kendall said, for the president's lawyers to fail to examine Republican witnesses and call their own. "You are looking at a process, realistically, of many months," Kendall said.
If the vote to dismiss fails, then the Senate will consider a motion to call its own witnesses for sworn testimony in private.
After that the Senate would have to vote to take public testimony from the same witnesses. Each motion requires a simple majority, or 51 votes -- four less than the number of Republican members.