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Senators Far From Agreement on Trial

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 4, 1999; Page A6

    Key senators strongly disagreed yesterday over whether the Senate should end the impeachment trial of President Clinton after a few days if a test vote shows he will not be convicted, an indication they are far from agreement on how to proceed.

    Only a week away from the proposed start of the trial, Democrats who appeared on the Sunday television talk shows supported the proposal while Republicans seemed sharply divided over it.

    It would be a "serious mistake," Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said on CNN's "Late Edition." He was joined in varying degrees of opposition to the proposal by Sens. John D. Ashcroft (R-Ohio), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), who argued that the trial should be continued to completion.

    Hutchison said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that it was not clear whether the proposal would command the support of a majority of Republicans, which could be critical to its success. Party caucuses will be held shortly after the 106th Congress convenes Wednesday to examine the plan.

    But Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who drafted the proposal with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that it would give "due weight" to the House vote last month to impeach Clinton, avoid destructive partisan battles and "do justice both to President Clinton and the American people." Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as many Democrats said they could also support the plan.

    Gorton said he saw no need for extensive testimony from witnesses if the trial is a "foregone conclusion." McConnell, chairman-designate of the Senate Rules Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that he did not believe an early test vote would run afoul of Senate rules.

    There were also wide-ranging views on whether the Senate should censure Clinton. The Gorton-Lieberman proposal, which is being circulated by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), envisions approval of a censure resolution if the trial is ended because the two-thirds majority required to convict and remove from office is lacking. A censure would require a simple majority vote.

    Thinking ahead to what a censure might say, the White House appeared to signal that Clinton -- who has steadfastly refused to admit that he perjured himself -- might accept language acknowledging that he was evasive and that "reasonable people" might conclude that his testimony in the Paula Jones case was false.

    Lanny J. Davis, a former White House special counsel, said on CNN: "I think that the president has endorsed what his White House counsel Charles Ruff has said, which is that in the civil deposition he certainly was evasive and misleading, [that] he walked up to the line of saying something falsely but he does not believe he crossed that line, but that reasonable people objectively could reach that conclusion. I think the president recognizes that some type of formulation such as Mr. Ruff [outlined] would be acceptable."

    While there was little agreement on what the Senate should do, several of the 16 senators who appeared on the Sunday shows urged Clinton to consider delaying his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 19, if the trial is not completed by then.

    Lieberman said that delay was part of the proposal he drafted with Gorton and that he feels "very strongly" about it.

    Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said: "It's inappropriate to report on the state of the union as long as the president is under impeachment because the state of the union from the perspective of his administration is unclear."

    But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), on "Fox News Sunday," said he would oppose a delay if it was intended as "some sort of punishment."

    Gramm suggested that Clinton could submit the address in writing. Specter said the Senate should call Clinton to testify in a Senate trial along with a limited number of other witnesses, noting that the Senate has the power to compel testimony. Clinton has consistently failed to answer critical questions, he said. With Clinton asking the Senate to leave him in office, "We are entitled to hear from him in a very sensible, straightforward way," Specter said.

    But other senators did not appear as enthusiastic. To bring Clinton before the Senate would add "an element of a circus to this matter," said Torricelli.

    "This should be a decision made solely by the president, and there should be no thought against him if he doesn't come," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

    A number of senators yesterday said they oppose any financial penalty for Clinton, which Lott and Daschle have already rejected. Some senators questioned whether a fine would be constitutional and also rejected any kind of plea-bargaining with the White House that might include immunity from future prosecution.

    "I don't think it's constitutional or appropriate," said Lieberman. "Nor do I think that it's appropriate for us to enter into a plea bargain on what happens to the president in criminal courts or what might happen."

    Several of the House prosecutors or "managers" argued strenuously against efforts to bar them from presenting witnesses. "This trial, if we conduct it with witnesses, could be done in a couple of weeks unless the senators get all tangled up in something that they really shouldn't do with a lot of motions and time and so on," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.).

    Under the Gorton-Lieberman plan, witnesses would be heard only if the Senate decided in the test vote to go ahead with the trial. Lott has said he did not see a need for witnesses. But in a Time magazine interview released yesterday, he said if the House decides "there's some essential need for witnesses, we would have to honor that request within reason."

    Regardless of what the Senate does, several senators said Clinton's presidency is permanently scarred by his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and attempt to cover it up. He is " 'whistling pass the graveyard' if he thinks the affair will be ever be forgotten," said Gorton. "Papal indulgence would not help here. . . . This guy is condemned in history for the acts he committed," added Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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