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Parties Split as Key Trial Votes Loom

Presidential advisor Sidney Blumenthal, center, departs Capitol Hill after being deposed by House prosecutors Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, February 4, 1999; Page A1

    Senate Democrats vowed yesterday to wage an "aggressive" battle to keep witnesses off the floor and prevent any finding of presidential misconduct, while Republicans struggled among themselves over how to bring President Clinton's impeachment trial to an appropriate end.

    With the completion of the third and final prosecution deposition yesterday, the Senate trial resumes at 1 p.m. today amid deep partisan division over whether to hear any testimony. House Republican prosecutors said they plan to ask the Senate today to call witnesses to the chamber or, failing that, to allow them to show videotaped portions of this week's private interviews with Monica S. Lewinsky and two Clinton advisers.

    The chances of live testimony appeared to be dwindling as more Republican senators signaled that they do not see the need, but the prospects for permitting video clips remained less clear. In a sharp escalation of partisan tensions, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) threatened to tar Republicans with responsibility for dragging on the trial if they insist on calling witnesses or pushing through "findings of facts" detailing Clinton offenses without removing him from office.

    "The more the Republicans demand an extension, the more it becomes a Republican trial," Daschle said. "If Republicans persist in demanding live witnesses and demanding more depositions and demanding extralegal devices, like findings of fact, the more it becomes a Republican trial."

    The White House likewise hammered away at the finding-of-fact proposal as unconstitutional but pledged not to use an acquittal to declare victory over Republicans. Acknowledging that a South Lawn pep rally-style Democratic gathering after Clinton was impeached in December rubbed many in Congress the wrong way, White House officials promised a "gloat-free zone" if the president is not convicted.

    The Republicans, however, emerged from a strategy meeting still uncertain about witnesses and the findings of fact. While some view the findings as a vehicle for expressing disapproval of Clinton's conduct with a simple majority vote given that they cannot muster the two-thirds vote necessary for removal, others were more skeptical.

    "It's still up in the air," Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said after the Republican session. "It is not soaring but it's not fallen either."

    Presented with two drafts, the Republicans concentrated on the shorter, simpler version on the theory that a highly detailed recitation of the president's misconduct would guarantee universal Democratic opposition and possibly scare off some Republicans. Drafters yesterday took out references to the articles of impeachment in a bid to win broader support and plan to scout out Democrats to determine whether there is any bipartisan potential before deciding Friday whether to proceed.

    That proposed statement would have the Senate conclude that Clinton "willfully provided false and misleading testimony" to a federal grand jury last August and engaged in a "course of conduct designed to alter, delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony related to a duly instituted federal civil rights action and a federal grand jury investigation."

    Republicans also took different tacks on how hard to press Clinton to testify himself, something his aides have adamantly insisted he would not do. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) sent Clinton a letter yesterday signed by 27 other Republicans, or half of his caucus, asking that the president reconsider and submit to a deposition.

    "Your knowledge, intent, actions, and omissions are central to the charges the House of Representatives have made against you," the letter said. "Personal answers from you should prove beneficial in our efforts to reconcile conflicting testimony."

    But the letter also made clear the Senate would not try to force him to answer questions, noting that no impeached official has ever been compelled to testify: "So while it may be within the Senate's power to compel your appearance, the Senate's historic handling of impeachment trials and the long term interests of the Office of the President caution against doing so."

    One person who had no such option was White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, the last of the witnesses interviewed this week. While he and various lawyers were behind closed doors for three hours, only about an hour of that time was taken up with actual questions and answers, with much of the rest consumed by objections and discussions about the range of testimony, according to sources familiar with the session.

    Blumenthal, 50, a former journalist, reaffirmed his grand jury testimony that Clinton described Lewinsky as a "stalker" who made a sexual demand on him that he refused, statements later revealed as untrue when the president confessed a sexual affair last August. Under questioning by Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), sources said, Blumenthal acknowledged that Clinton lied and made no effort to clarify his version before the aide was brought before the grand jury and recounted the false statement.

    When Rogan finished, another manager, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), began asking about "White House press strategies of personal destruction," according to sources. Prosecutors are interested in whether Blumenthal tried to disparage Lewinsky or other witnesses against the president.

    But White House special counsel Lanny A. Breuer objected to Graham's references to former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey. After Willey last year went public with an allegation that Clinton groped her in the Oval Office suite, the White House released a sheaf of notes and letters from her to the president to demonstrate that she did not appear upset with him.

    Blumenthal denied participating in any smear campaign, according to sources. The White House reserved the right to object and could press the matter today before the full Senate if it wishes to strike that line of questioning, but there was no indication that the president's team would do so.

    After finishing with Blumenthal, the House prosecution team met and tentatively agreed to ask for live testimony from Blumenthal, Lewinsky and Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. If the Senate refuses, lead prosecutor Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said, prosecutors would prefer to use excerpts from the videotaped depositions in a separate presentation before closing arguments. Still, he conceded that Lewinsky's testimony did not alter the political landscape of the trial, saying, "It wasn't harmful, but it wasn't helpful."

    With the Senate due to confront the volatile question today, Daschle attacked any live testimony as unnecessary and expressed misgivings about using video snippets. "If you're going to air a deposition, you'd better air the whole thing," he said.

    Some key Republicans agreed that floor testimony is unnecessary. "I don't think we'll have live witnesses," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), noting "great ambivalence" among Republicans.

    The findings-of-fact proposal, though, generated the hottest partisan fire as Democrats solidified their opposition to the idea. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) denounced the concept as a "legislative mutant" that would "bastardize the impeachment process. . . . Who knows what monsters this rogue gene might spawn in future days?"

    The Byrd piece mobilized Democrats, according to several senators who described their caucus as nearly united against it. If Republicans bring the proposal to the floor, Daschle said, Democrats would offer "an array of amendments" to the proposed findings in an attempt to thwart it, a way around trial rules that do not allow normal filibusters. To pound home the point, Daschle said Democrats will offer motions "virtually every day we have the opportunity" to move immediately to a final vote.

    The White House echoed the Democratic complaints and said it would accept a finding of facts after the end of the trial – in effect a censure resolution. "As they move toward the exits, they shouldn't try to trample on the Constitution," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. Yet Lockhart tried to calm GOP concerns that an acquittal would allow Clinton to claim vindication. "I now declare, in a post-impeachment era, this a gloat-free zone," he said.

    Republicans scoffed at the Democratic complaints about a finding of facts. "I think they're scared to death of it," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). But the rallying of the president's party may make it impossible to build bipartisan support for their proposal. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said that "five is the minimum" number of Democratic supporters for the findings of fact to have credibility.

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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