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Senate Votes to Subpoena Three Witnesses

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A1

    A sharply divided Senate refused to throw out the case against President Clinton yesterday and agreed to take testimony from Monica S. Lewinsky and two other witnesses, but the twin, nearly party-line votes foreshadowed eventual acquittal in the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years.

    With identical 56 to 44 votes, the Senate defeated a Democratic motion to dismiss the case and then approved prosecution subpoenas for Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) was the only lawmaker to cross party lines, joining Republicans to keep the trial going with depositions.

    While a short-term victory for Republicans who reassured edgy members of their majority and overcame Democratic attempts to short-circuit the proceedings, the votes could prove to be the decisive moment saving Clinton's presidency, barring a blockbuster development no one predicts. Although conviction by the constitutionally required two-thirds vote always appeared unlikely, yesterday's roll call put 44 senators on record for the first time opposing removal, or 10 more than Clinton needs to remain in office.

    "Today's events make clear that the votes are not there to convict and remove the president from office," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig. "Any proceedings from this day forward only serve to delay the final resolution of this matter and run counter to the best interest of the Congress, the presidency and the American people."

    Senate Democrats echoed the refrain. "The president will not be removed from office," said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). "For the good of the country, and in keeping with the Constitution, it is now time to end this trial. It is time to move on."

    Even some Republicans who agreed to let the process play itself out shared the assessment of how it will conclude. "You've seen the end of the movie," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), unless the depositions produce "something drastic that we don't foresee."

    The still-elusive trick for both sides was figuring out how to get to that ending while possibly fashioning an alternative way to hold Clinton accountable for his actions. Daschle and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) conferred throughout the day in an effort to keep the floor votes from fracturing the bipartisanship that had characterized the trial until now and to forge a new consensus on how to proceed from here.

    The two exchanged proposals for wrapping up the trial before a Senate recess scheduled to start Feb. 12. If they can reach a tentative agreement by this morning, each will present the procedural plan to his respective caucus before the Senate reconvenes at 1 p.m. to vote.

    For the House Republican prosecutors, or "managers," the message from yesterday's votes was decidedly mixed. In effect, the Senate has now told them that they can have the chance to make their case through the witness depositions they have demanded, but that in all likelihood it will not matter.

    Some of the managers chose to interpret the floor action as a vote of confidence in their case, given the strong majority they received, and welcomed the opportunity to interview witnesses despite strenuous White House objections. "It shows the strength of the managers' case," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), though he acknowledged that "at this time there's not the two-thirds vote necessary."

    The lead manager, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), however, was more bitter, offering a scathing review of the Senate Republicans who pressured him into paring back his witness list to just three. Asked before the vote about the senators' search for an exit strategy, Hyde said, "I'm glad those people weren't at Valley Forge or the Alamo."

    In approving witnesses yesterday, the Senate authorized only closed-door depositions. Under trial rules, it would require a separate vote after those interviews to bring witnesses to the floor. By videotaping them, as appears likely, some senators hope to avoid the need for live testimony because lawyers could show video excerpts on the floor.

    Under rules still being worked out, the depositions could be completed by Monday. As proposed by Lott, each would last no more than six hours, with the time for questioning split evenly between the managers and White House lawyers. Two senators, one from each party, would sit in on each as mediators.

    Lewinsky, the 25-year-old former White House intern whose affair with the president led to the scandal, left Washington on Tuesday after being forced to return to town over the weekend by court order to meet with three of the House managers. While unhappy about being forced to testify in the trial of the man she once professed deep love for, Lewinsky does not plan to fight it. "We will accept a subpoena and comply," said spokeswoman Judy Smith.

    Jordan, 63, a powerful Washington lawyer and longtime Clinton friend, was out of town yesterday but contrary to some reports not out of the country, according to his lawyer, William G. Hundley. "When we get a subpoena, we'll be there," Hundley said.

    But managers, he added, should not anticipate hearing anything beyond what Jordan told independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury in five appearances last year. "There won't be anything new, any surprises, in my opinion," Hundley said. "He'll stick to his grand jury testimony under oath. . . . I can't think of any questions Starr's people didn't ask."

    Blumenthal, 50, a former journalist who now works at the White House as a communications strategist, has declined to comment and his attorneys have not returned telephone messages this week.

    In picking Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal, the managers hoped to elicit direct testimony about six of the seven obstruction-of-justice allegations against the president. Lewinsky could talk about her conversations with Clinton about the false affidavit she filed in the Paula Jones case denying their affair. Jordan could talk about the job search he launched on Lewinsky's behalf. And Blumenthal would be asked about a conversation with the president in which Clinton told him Lewinsky was a "stalker," a false story Blumenthal passed on to Starr's grand jury.

    As part of the witness motion, the House managers also won permission to introduce two affidavits and telephone records showing a 56-minute call between Clinton and Lewinsky on the day he learned she would be a witness in the Jones case.

    Hutchinson said that while he and his colleagues hoped to explore several important questions in an effort to resolve conflicts in the record, he did not expect the sessions to yield dramatic revelations. "I don't think you would anticipate any bombshells," he said.

    Hutchinson will interview Jordan, while Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) will question Lewinsky and Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) will handle the Blumenthal deposition.

    Clinton was on a telephone conference call with Vice President Gore and several western governors talking about salmon restoration when the Senate voted soon after 1 p.m. and had no reaction, aides said. The White House had warned in dire terms that permitting any witnesses would require it to counter with a wide-open evidence-gathering process that could drag on for months, and in a break from their policy of deference, aides harshly condemned Senate Republicans yesterday.

    With Republicans yesterday morning publicly commenting on their hopes to close out the trial after the depositions, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart lashed out at what he called a "fundamentally unfair" process. "They're now trying to put a blindfold on us," he said. "We believe we ought to have an adequate chance to get prepared and to present a defense."

    But by the end of the day, as the import of the 44 votes to dismiss sank in, the president's team softly sent a different message. If the three depositions are limited in time and scope and do not produce sensational new information, White House advisers said they likely would forgo the much-threatened discovery with the assurance of acquittal.

    One thing that could forestall that battlefield withdrawal was a plan under study by Republican leaders for a two-step vote that would still essentially declare Clinton guilty even while leaving him in the White House. Under this proposal, the Senate would vote first to approve a "finding of facts" concluding Clinton did commit some of the offenses he has been charged with, before moving on to the final vote on conviction.

    One outside adviser said the White House was outraged by the idea, which could endanger Clinton in criminal court if Starr prosecutes him after his term ends in January 2001. "This is a smokescreen for another version of political cover," he said. "This borders on the same outrageous partisanship that occurred in the House if we go down that road and we will insist on extensive discovery to challenge any findings."

    The votes took place shortly after 1 p.m. with none of the soaring rhetoric that typically marks historic Senate decisions. Following the 19th century impeachment trial rules, the senators had deliberated behind closed doors over the past two days, having rejected a move to conduct their discussion in public. As the clerk yesterday read their names aloud in alphabetical order, first on the dismissal offered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), then on the prosecutors' motion, the senators one by one stood at their desks and, sometimes in a booming voice, sometimes in a bare whisper, called out "aye" or "nay."

    On both votes, Feingold broke from his party. In a written statement later issued by his office, he said he voted against dismissal because it would "in appearance and in fact improperly short-circuit this trial." To bar testimony on key areas of dispute, he added, would "call the fairness of the process into question." But Feingold added that his votes should not be seen as signals of his eventual decision on conviction.

    Another Democrat who had kept his counsel and been watched nervously by party leaders stayed within the fold. Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) said he did not believe the House prosecutors had "met the high standards . . . for removal of a president from office."

    The votes were the final acts envisioned by a bipartisan deal that set the rules and the tone for the opening phase of the trial. But by deferring the question of witnesses until today, those rules merely put off what turned out to be an inevitable partisan confrontation. Lott succeeded in holding together the wavering members of his caucus by forcing House managers to trim their witness list but could not win over Democrats other than Feingold.

    A last-minute effort Tuesday night to find a bipartisan exit strategy fizzled by yesterday morning for lack of time. "A good deal [of agreement] has come together, but it meant waiting another 24 to 48 hours and we didn't have it," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho).

    Lott started the day floating a rapid-paced plan to wind up the trial by Feb. 6 if the White House did not insist on discovery proceedings. But Democrats complained the timetable was unrealistically tight and did not afford adequate due process for the president. Republicans were telling the president that "we want to have our witnesses but you don't need to have your witnesses," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

    Lott backed off and began meeting with Daschle, while other senators, singly and in groups, circulated their own plans. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), in an odd bipartisan pairing, came up with a proposal to end the trial by Feb. 5 if the White House called no witnesses and by Feb. 11 if it did.

    Either way, live testimony on the floor would be rejected.

    By the end of the afternoon, Lott appeared on the floor to report that he and Daschle were making progress but would not finish yesterday. While the trial would likely go beyond his Feb. 6 target, he said, "I believe, certainly barring some bolt-of-lightning discovery that we don't now see, we would be through with it before the Lincoln Day recess period," starting Feb. 12.

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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