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Daschle Suggests Witnesses Are Likely

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 19, 1999; Page A5

    On the eve of White House lawyers' counteroffensive in President Clinton's impeachment trial, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said yesterday that it "may be inevitable" the Republicans will vote to call witnesses over the Democrats' objections.

    Daschle and a White House spokesman separately warned that the president's lawyers would call witnesses of their own if the Republican Senate majority insisted upon hearing direct testimony from witnesses such as former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and presidential secretary Betty Currie.

    The Democratic leader also cautioned that the trial could deteriorate into a partisan brawl that would drag on through the spring, as the depositions and testimony of one set of witnesses triggered the need to call additional witnesses.

    "I've heard a number of Republicans say they would never turn down a request by the White House for witnesses and we certainly would hold them to that promise," Daschle said.

    "It seems to me that within reason we have to grant the requests [the White House and House managers] make and it may be multiple requests," he said. "It may be one witness triggers the need for another witness."

    White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters that "if the House managers insist on witnesses and the Senate approves them, certainly we will look at calling witnesses," adding that "either way we are looking at a process that is extended and delayed."

    The question of whether to call witnesses has emerged as the most contentious dividing the Senate and appears to be turning into a litmus test of party loyalty in the impeachment trial.

    In adopting rules for proceeding with the trial, the Senate early this month agreed unanimously to postpone a final decision on the need for witnesses until after the House Republican managers and the president's lawyers had completed their opening arguments.

    Yet even before House managers opened their case last Thursday, several Senate Republicans met privately with the managers at the behest of Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to begin shaping a potential witness list. Over the weekend, GOP leaders and aides said that because of the managers' compelling arguments, the vast majority of Republicans now agree on the need for at least some witnesses.

    Under Senate rules and the trial procedures, it would take a simple majority of the Senate – 51 votes if all senators are present – to call witnesses, who under the rules would have to be voted on individually. With Republicans controlling the Senate 55 to 45, this means that even if all Democrats vote against witnesses, they would still have to pick up at least five Republican votes to prevail.

    The House managers argue that witnesses are needed to resolve important contradictions in the grand jury testimony of Clinton, Lewinsky, Currie and presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. concerning the White House sex scandal.

    Democrats have responded that the Republicans – who called no witnesses during the House impeachment hearings during which the two articles of impeachment were approved – are seeking to bolster a weak case. For their part, the president's lawyers are wary that new testimony might provide damaging new evidence.

    "It boggles the mind a bit to try to understand how someone testifying for the 10th time or the 23rd time or the ninth time can provide any more clarity," Lockhart said yesterday.

    Last weekend, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said that if the Senate insists on calling witnesses, the White House would seek to cross-examine independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Other Democrats said they would be interested in hearing testimony from Linda R. Tripp, the former friend of Lewinsky whose secret tape recordings triggered the Starr investigation.

    Beginning today, the president's lawyers will attempt to rebut critical evidence in the House managers' perjury and obstruction of justice case and to argue that, even if the charges were true, they don't rise to the level of impeachable offenses. White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff will kick off the defense in what is expected to be an abbreviated session, which will allow adequate time for the focus to shift to Clinton's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress tonight.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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