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Lewinsky on Witness List for Clinton Trial

Lott,TWP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott talks with reporters after arriving on Capitol Hill Wednesday. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 7, 1999; Page A1

    With the impeachment trial of President Clinton set to open this morning, the House Republican team assigned to prosecute him made plans to call as many as 10 witnesses, including Monica S. Lewinsky, despite uncertainty about whether the Senate will agree to hear live testimony.

    The Senate will formally receive the 13 House prosecutors and hear the charges at 10 a.m. today, returning at 1 p.m. to swear in Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist as the presiding officer and then all 100 senators as jurors. But aside from determining these ministerial beginnings, Senate leaders were still conferring with one another and the White House late into last night about how to proceed with the first trial of a president in 131 years.

    The key sticking point remained whether witnesses would be called, which House prosecutors have insisted on and Senate Democrats adamantly oppose. A compromise proposal gaining momentum among key senators last night would put off a judgment on that question until after the prosecution and Clinton defense teams each make up to five days of presentations.

    At that point, the Senate could decide whether direct testimony is necessary and then vote on subpoenas, witness by witness. If no witnesses were called, votes on the two articles of impeachment could be held in the first week of February.

    The lack of a firm plan made for a volatile situation on the eve of the constitutional clash over whether Clinton should be the first president evicted from office. Embarking on a process not undertaken during the lifetime of any participant, all three branches of the federal government had a stake in a trial whose rules are being written as they go.

    "We're going into this not knowing how it's going to come out, which is a very rare thing in Washington," said an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

    Lott acknowledged on the Senate floor last night that there were still "a lot of gaps" to fill in, but appeared to abandon a proposal calling for an early test vote that might have brought a quick end to the trial.

    While not addressing that idea directly, Lott said he expected to reach agreement with Democrats for a "full trial" with an "early beginning" that would culminate in votes "at the end of the process" on the impeachment articles alleging that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice to conceal his affair with Lewinsky.

    "We have a duty," he said. "We will do our very best to carry it out in a way that the American people would feel is appropriate for the Senate and dignified and fair."

    By committing to votes on the articles themselves, Lott offered a concession to many of his fellow Republicans who objected fiercely to short-circuiting the trial. Under the plan Lott previously had been circulating, the trial would have been called off after a few days of opening arguments if Clinton opponents could not muster a two-thirds vote to show that they might be able to meet the constitutional standard required for removal from office, effectively allowing 34 senators to shut down the proceeding.

    Even without such a procedure, the White House or its Democratic allies could still offer a motion to dismiss the case, which would require a simple majority, or 51 votes. Clinton lawyers have been preparing such a motion, which would argue that the charges are factually unproven and constitutionally insufficient to justify forcing a twice-elected president from power.

    Such a motion could be introduced as early as Monday, when Lott said he expects to begin "certain pretrial activity." The proceedings scheduled for today will be limited to the more ceremonial tasks of hearing the charges read by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), issuing a summons to the president and administering the oath to Rehnquist and the senators.

    Although he serves as president of the Senate, Vice President Gore does not plan to swear in Rehnquist, leaving the task instead to the chamber's president pro tempore, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

    The haggling over where to go from there has been complicated by the many factions involved. Not only are senators disagreeing along party lines, they are squabbling with House prosecutors as well. A Senate aide said last night that there remains a "significant gap" with the House over the number of witnesses.

    Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) yesterday bluntly told House prosecutors to mind their own business. "We didn't involve ourselves in their proceedings and it's very disturbing that they now seem to be intent on involving themselves in ours," he said.

    Hyde said he was simply replying to senators' questions. "They're very sensitive about the lowly House telling them anything, so I bow and scrape accordingly," he said.

    Left out through much of this was the White House, which complained yesterday that it should be informed about the procedures from the outset and not have to "find out what the rules of the game are halfway through," as press secretary Joe Lockhart put it at midday.

    Shortly before 9 p.m., the president's team was finally invited into the decision-making process for the first time, as White House aides Charles F.C. Ruff, Gregory B. Craig, Steve Ricchetti and Lawrence Stein traveled to Capitol Hill to meet for about an hour with a six-member bipartisan group of senators charged with finding a consensus.

    The White House team offered during that meeting to stipulate to the evidence collected by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and publicly released by the House if the Senate would go forward with a trial without witnesses. But the Clinton aides received no indication that the Senate would go along.

    As lawmakers officially opened the 106th Congress yesterday, the House voted 223 to 198 largely along party lines to reappoint the 13 Republicans serving as "managers" of the trial and they quickly resumed work preparing for their case. Hyde, who met with Lott yesterday, has proposed calling five to 10 witnesses, according to sources familiar with the planning.

    At the top of the House witness list were Lewinsky and Clinton's close friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who arranged job interviews for the former White House intern and found her a lawyer to fight a subpoena ordering her to testify in the Paula Jones lawsuit about her affair.

    Rep. Christopher Cannon (R-Utah), a member of the prosecution, said both witnesses would provide senators with information critical to the case. "Vernon Jordan's a player," Cannon said. "Monica Lewinsky's right in the middle of this. It's hard to do something without her."

    Several House managers said they could avoid the unseemly spectacle of Lewinsky testifying about the intimate details of her sexual relationship with the president by simply asking her to reaffirm her grand jury testimony during Starr's criminal investigation. The questioning during the Senate trial would then focus on the obstruction of justice charge.

    Less clear was whether the prosecution would choose to summon presidential secretary Betty Currie, who often acted as a go-between for Clinton and Lewinsky. Currie is central to several obstruction allegations because she retrieved gifts from Lewinsky to help her avoid complying with a Jones subpoena seeking them and because the president allegedly coached his secretary to help cover up the affair.

    In an impromptu news conference outside his office last night, Lott said the Senate should consider any request for witnesses from either House prosecutors or the White House but added "either side that wants witnesses has to show why."

    Senate Democrats complained strongly that allowing any witnesses would result in a trial that would drag on for months and essentially paralyze the federal government.

    "I think it's fair to say that there is universal, unanimous opposition to witnesses" in his party, said Daschle. "I don't know that there is a person in the Democratic caucus who believes that it would lend any additional benefit to these proceedings."

    Without a bipartisan agreement on a procedure for witnesses, Senate Democrats might be able to block subpoenas if their 45-member caucus remained united and won over as few as six Republicans. "I think there are more than six who would not want to call Monica Lewinsky as a witness," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

    The White House made clear it also would prefer no witnesses by noting that House Republicans did not call any in impeachment proceedings. "They didn't feel the need to," Lockhart said. "Based on the Constitution and based on the facts as we know them, I don't see how they could."

    The White House had been poised to accept a quick trial that would begin Monday with no witnesses by relying entirely on the evidence in Starr's report and the publicly released supplemental materials. But if the prosecution is allowed to call witnesses, Clinton's lawyers may want to as well, particularly players such as Linda R. Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, who helped trigger Starr's investigation. Such a process could then involve weeks of pretrial evidence-gathering and depositions.

    While preferring no live testimony, the president's strategists believe calling witnesses may not be too damaging because none of those likeliest to be summoned by the prosecution is hostile to Clinton.

    Jordan remains a close friend and spent time with him at Christmas. Currie remains on the job and hugged him in the Oval Office on the day Clinton was impeached last month. While their testimony helped Starr build his case, neither suggested to the grand jury that Clinton's actions were intended to illegally impede the Jones lawsuit.

    Lewinsky could be more problematic. Her grand jury testimony directly contradicted Clinton's about the nature of their sexual activities and she said she interpreted his comments to her as signals to lie in the Jones case. But she also said he never asked her to lie under oath or offered her job help in exchange for false testimony.

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Terry M. Neal and David Von Drehle contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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