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Senators Vote to View Lewinsky on Videotape

GOP senators led by Trent Lott voted to view taped depositions. (C-SPAN)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, February 5, 1999; Page A1

    Bridging partisan divisions, the Senate yesterday charted a course to wrap up President Clinton's impeachment trial next week without Monica S. Lewinsky testifying and likely without any "findings of fact" that would cite presidential misconduct while leaving him in office.

    In a series of votes defying the party lines that have governed the trial in recent days, the Senate refused to subpoena Lewinsky to appear in person but authorized excerpts of her videotaped deposition and those of two Clinton advisers to be shown on the floor tomorrow. Nearly half of the Senate Republicans joined Democrats on the 70 to 30 vote to bar Lewinsky from the well, signaling the end of their attempts to accommodate House Republican prosecutors who campaigned for a complete trial.

    Off the floor, Republican senators likewise all but gave up hope of passing "findings of fact" that would detail wrongdoing by the president without convicting him. Once seen as a way of expressing disapproval of Clinton's behavior, the proposal threatened a major rupture with Democrats, and key Republicans said they will drop it unless they detect support across the aisle that does not now exist.

    The cumulative developments underscored the growing Republican impatience with a trial that Clinton appears certain to win even as it hurts the GOP politically. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made clear he was determined to hold final up-or-down votes on the two articles of impeachment by next Friday -- and "conceivably" even a day earlier.

    "I do think it's time that we get to a vote and that we move on," Lott said. "We can complete this next week and [after a recess] we can be talking about education, defense and tax cuts and Social Security by the 20th of February."

    In a last-minute bid to salvage their case, House prosecutors who once hoped to call as many as 15 witnesses decided just before yesterday's trial proceedings to drop their request to subpoena Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and ask only for live testimony from Lewinsky herself.

    Even that was not enough and the managers left the chamber frustrated that their case has been abridged. "Either Lewinsky or Clinton is lying and the Senate's job is to figure out whom," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). "I don't think the Senate is making available the best evidence to itself. But from historical precedent, it's clear that the Senate is in charge of running the trial."

    The White House was not entirely claiming victory either. While successful in blocking live Lewinsky testimony, Clinton's legal team had fought even a video appearance by the former White House intern whose affair with the president led to the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against him.

    Although her voice has been heard since the House's release of her secretly recorded conversations with Linda R. Tripp, never has Lewinsky been seen by the American public describing her dealings with Clinton. In a strikingly personal appeal yesterday, his lawyers pleaded with senators to consider the emotional turmoil video segments would cause Clinton's wife and daughter.

    "How can the Senate contemplate releasing Ms. Lewinsky's videotape testimony discussing her relationship with the president without giving at least some thought to the impact that this might have on the members of the family?" White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig asked during two hours of floor arguments before yesterday's votes. "You can be sure that the release of this testimony and of this videotape will only add to the agony, to the embarrassment, and to the humiliation."

    Still, for Lewinsky, who already had assumed that the deposition would be played, yesterday's decision meant she will not have to undergo questioning in front of 100 senators on live national television. Lewinsky, who left Washington on Tuesday night, watched part of yesterday's trial proceedings on television.

    "Monica and her family are pleased that she does not have to go through the painful and humiliating ordeal of having to testify on the floor of the Senate," said spokeswoman Judy Smith. "The Lewinsky family hopes closure will come soon for everyone else involved."

    The votes yesterday indicated that party lines have not hardened as much as some senators had feared four weeks into the trial. All 100 senators agreed to admit this week's depositions of Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal into the official record. The Senate then voted 70 to 30 to reject the prosecution subpoena for Lewinsky, with all 45 Democrats joined by 25 Republicans, including Virginia's John W. Warner.

    The Republicans who rebuffed their House colleagues spanned the ideological range, from New England moderates such as Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) to Southern conservatives such as Sens. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and even Strom Thurmond (S.C.).

    "I feel this tragic figure has very little credibility, and to the extent that people want to refer to her diverse testimony through the years, the video and transcripts are adequate," said Warner.

    Democrats were more split among themselves over video excerpts. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) proposed allowing transcripts to be used on the floor without videotapes, but that idea was defeated 73 to 27, with 20 Democrats and all but two Republicans against it. The Senate then voted 62 to 38 to allow both transcripts and video, with nine Democrats agreeing and only two Republicans dissenting.

    For symbolic purposes, though, Democrats forced the Senate to vote again on a motion to skip the next steps and go straight to closing arguments and a final decision. That failed on a nearly partisan tally, 56 to 44, with only Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) breaking party lines, as he has on previous motions to end the case.

    Having finally resolved the thorny issue of witnesses, the Senate will take a day off from the trial as lawyers prepare to present evidence from the depositions tomorrow. Each side will have three hours on Saturday to show portions of the testimony.

    In a final bid for Lewinsky's live testimony, prosecutors yesterday released a small selection from the Lewinsky and Jordan interviews, including answers about a Dec. 31, 1997, breakfast where the two discussed her involvement in the Paula Jones case. Lewinsky told House managers this week that by that point she suspected Tripp might double-cross her and so she was hoping to use the meeting "to cushion the shock of what would happen if Linda Tripp testified all the facts about my relationship."

    Jordan, who had told a grand jury that he never had breakfast with Lewinsky, retreated after managers showed him a credit card receipt for the meal. While he said he did not remember the breakfast when asked last year, this week he recalled that Lewinsky during the meal raised the subject of love notes she had written the president. "I am certain that Ms. Lewinsky talked to me about notes," he said.

    Lewinsky has testified that Jordan told her to "make sure they're not there" and that she then went home and discarded about 50 notes. According to sources, Jordan adamantly denied under oath this week encouraging her to destroy evidence, although prosecutors did not include this statement among the excerpts released yesterday.

    Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), who conducted Jordan's interview, did provide other quotes from that session intended to link Clinton to the job search Jordan conducted for Lewinsky. "There is no question but that through [secretary] Betty Currie I was acting on behalf of the president to get Ms. Lewinsky a job," Jordan testified.

    Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.), who interviewed Lewinsky, told senators that she was "very guarded" and her testimony was "tainted by a mixture of her continued admiration for the president [and] her desire to protect him." But that regard for Clinton makes her account of the facts implicating him all the more powerful, Bryant argued.

    In rebutting the managers, the White House team seemed mostly concerned with avoiding 24-hour-a-day television replays of Lewinsky. Craig argued that live witnesses would "tarnish the Senate as an institution" and video excerpts would turn Saturday's session into a "duel of snippets."

    "In truth, there are no bombshells in that testimony," Craig said. "There is no dynamite, there are no explosions."

    The resolution that eventually passed will allow virtually all of the depositions to be made public but was circumscribed by House managers to exclude any statements made after the end of the direct response to the last question. That will keep out a statement made by Jordan at the conclusion of his testimony as well as an apology offered to Lewinsky by a Clinton lawyer at the end of her appearance.

    On a strict party-line vote, the Senate refused a White House request to require prosecutors to give advance notice of which parts of the videotapes they will use. Quoting a California judge, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) told the defense team, "It is none of your damn business what the other side is going to put on."

    The White House likewise dismissed a request by Lott and 27 other Republican senators seeking Clinton's voluntary testimony. "It is neither necessary nor appropriate for the President to testify," White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff wrote Lott.

    Although the White House has until today to ask for further evidence-gathering in the case, it almost certainly will not. That would clear the way for closing arguments to begin Monday, followed by up to 25 hours of deliberations over three days prior to a final vote. While those deliberations are set to be closed, support has grown to open them to the public, although it was unclear whether advocates could find the two-thirds supermajority they need to suspend the rules.

    The schedule outlined by Lott yesterday did not envision the Senate making any "findings of fact," a strategy that once held his fancy. While the idea was not dead, "it's in desperate need of life support," Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said at midday. Asked later whether he thought the plan was still alive, he said, "I don't think so."

    Given Republican opposition to the Democratic alternative of a post-trial censure, though, it appeared possible Clinton would be acquitted with no further consequence. But Lott said, "I don't think any president that has been impeached and tried by the Senate, even though he may not be removed, could feel like he's gotten off scot-free."

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Guy Gugliotta, Spencer S. Hsu and Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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