Senate Aims for Feb. 12 Final Impeachment Vote
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 29, 1999; Page A1
The Senate approved a plan last night intended to end President Clinton's impeachment trial by Feb. 12 but broke along party lines for the second day in a row as the Republican majority outvoted Democrats who wanted to bar Monica S. Lewinsky from testifying on the Senate floor.
A day of up-and-down negotiations produced concessions by both parties, only to fall apart over a few critical disputes such as Lewinsky's testimony and how firm to make the target end date. At the end of the day, the two sides gave up searching for compromise and put their competing plans to a vote, which the Republicans won on a pair of strictly partisan 54 to 44 roll calls.
The Democrats forced a third vote seeking to move immediately to a final decision on whether to oust the president, knowing they have more than the 34 senators required to block conviction on the two articles of impeachment. But the GOP majority refused on a 55 to 43 vote, with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) again joining the Republicans as he did the day before in defeating a Democratic motion to dismiss the case outright.
Under the procedural plan adopted last night, videotaped depositions will proceed first with Lewinsky on Monday, followed the next two days by depositions of presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. The Senate will reconvene Thursday to consider whether to allow part or all of those sworn interviews to be played on the Senate floor or to bring any of those witnesses to the well to testify in person.
Left unanswered by the new rules were several big questions, most significantly whether the Senate could take a two-step vote declaring that Clinton committed some of the offenses outlined in the articles without forcing him from power, an idea embraced by some Republicans and specifically foreclosed by the failed Democratic plan. And the Feb. 12 target for a final vote could slip if the Senate decides to allow either side to introduce new evidence or take more testimony.
Still, Republicans made several important concessions. Under the plan, the House Republican "managers" could not seek any additional evidence discovered during their upcoming depositions unless both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) agree.
And while Democrats failed to block the options of showing videotaped testimony on the floor or calling live witnesses, the new plan still requires a majority vote to allow either of those to happen, which could be a tough sell for the managers because a number of Republican senators have expressed misgivings about such a move.
The failure of the bipartisan talks and the renewal of party-line voting threatened to further poison the political environment in a way that many senators have endeavored mightily to avoid. As the trial this week moved into making decisions sidestepped earlier, senators consistently have found it harder to head off the partisan confrontations like those they deplored in the House impeachment debate.
"Clearly the bipartisanship in the Senate is dead and we've returned to an atmosphere of partisanship and partisan votes," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "They don't have the votes to win this, but they do have the votes to extend this."
Yet many senators were unwilling to pronounce last rites. "The feeling of bipartisanship and fairness is still strong," Lott said afterward. Senate Democrats complained about specific provisions but did not declare them fatal. A Daschle spokeswoman characterized the issues as "serious disagreements," but added, "I don't think this is a death blow to bipartisanship."
With both sides anxious to wrap up the trial after Wednesday's vote to dismiss made clear that an eventual acquittal is a virtual certainty, it appeared increasingly likely that it could be concluded within two weeks. Democrats in their plan would have required a final vote by noon on Feb. 12. Republicans who had argued against a firm deadline finally adopted the same time frame, although they included an escape hatch in case either the prosecution or defense is allowed to gather additional evidence.
GOP leaders last night played down the chances that would happen. Lott predicted the trial would be over on target by the 12th -- the beginning of the Senate's next recess -- while Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) both agreed that there was a much "better than 50-50 chance" of finishing by then.
The resolution adopted on the floor left final details about next week's depositions to Lott and Daschle to work out. Although senators had hoped to begin them this weekend, they decided to wait until Monday.
While the two leaders were still finalizing their plans, they agree that each deposition will last no more than eight hours, with questioning to be evenly divided between House prosecutors and White House defense lawyers, according to Daschle's office. Lott and Daschle will each assign a senator to attend and preside over each of the depositions, ruling on any objections. Attorneys for the witnesses will be allowed in as well.
The other 98 senators will have access to transcripts and videotapes of the depositions a day after they are conducted. On Thursday, the managers would propose which parts they want to use on the floor and which witnesses they want to summon to the well directly. If a Senate majority agrees, the White House would have 24 hours to make its own motions regarding witnesses it might want to interview or evidence it would want to collect.
In addition to prohibiting live or videotaped testimony on the floor, Senate Democrats also wanted to bar any additional discovery by either side. But the Senate Republicans gave their House GOP counterparts one last chance to pursue "new relevant evidence discovered during the depositions," provided the majority and minority leaders agree on it and the Senate votes to approve such a move.
Senate Democrats said the videotaping raised the specter of "salacious testimony" if Lewinsky is questioned about details of her affair with Clinton. "I simply don't think it's appropriate, in keeping with the dignity of these proceedings," Daschle said. "The videotaping adds a degree of sensationalism," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.).
But Paul McNulty, spokesman for the House managers, said they have "no intention of asking Miss Lewinsky questions of a sensitive nature" and added: "Those aren't the questions of obstruction of justice and perjury we want to clarify."
And Senate Republicans mocked the concern. The Daschle plan, said Gorton, called for "sex, lies and no videotape." As for the Republicans, "We want the videotape."
Another critical flashpoint for the two sides was the developing Republican plan for "findings of fact" that would put the Senate on record agreeing with some if not all of the allegations lodged by the House managers without taking the ultimate step of removing Clinton. Democrats have complained such a move would be unconstitutional and wanted it explicitly ruled out by the procedural plan, while Republicans said their rules neither allow nor disallow it.
Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who said he has "serious reservations" about the findings-of-fact concept, nonetheless accused Democrats of overreacting. "I think they're squealing before they've been stuck," he said.
Lott and Daschle had tried to resolve their differences in time for the opening of yesterday's trial proceedings at 1 p.m., but a series of direct and indirect negotiations, interrupted by party caucuses and informal collaborations, had yielded no accord. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, presiding over the trial as required by the Constitution, agreed to recess it until 2 p.m., when the Senate returned still empty-handed. Finally, it recessed until about 5:30 p.m., when the two leaders presented their alternative plans.
The managers had hoped for maximum flexibility and at least the chance to persuade the Senate to hear live testimony. But recognizing the dim prospects for calling witnesses to the well of the Senate, they pressed senators at least to videotape the depositions.
"We're mainly concerned with having the opportunity to present testimony in a fair and impartial way," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). "We want something we can present in its entirety before the Senate."
Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said he hopes to construct a more coherent narrative about the obstruction of justice allegations in the course of questioning witnesses like Jordan. "It's important we make a presentation of facts in a way that's understandable to the Senate," he said. "Clearly we have a heavy burden to change votes in the chamber, but there's been a lot of shifts in momentum even in the course of the trial so far and I don't think we should underestimate the impact a witness can have."
The prosecution team was negotiating with Lewinsky's lawyers over whether she would still enjoy immunity during questioning stemming from her deal with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr last summer protecting her from prosecution. According to McCollum, House managers believe that immunity would apply to her congressional testimony, a conclusion shared by Starr's office and the Senate legal counsel.
McCollum, who was among the managers who debriefed Lewinsky last weekend, said he expected Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) to question her about her statements that no one asked her to lie or promised her a job for lying about her affair during the Paula Jones case. Although Democrats have seized upon that quote as evidence that Clinton did not obstruct justice, McCollum has argued they have taken the sentence out of context.
"She'll clarify it again, as she's done in grand jury testimony," he said.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Eric Pianin and Ed Walsh contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company