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House, Senate at Odds on Trial Length

McCollum House Judiciary Committee member Bill McCollum joins a meeting of the House impeachment "managers" Tuesday.
(AP Photo)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 30, 1998; Page A1

    The House-appointed prosecutors who will manage the case against President Clinton said yesterday that they are preparing to mount a full-scale trial in the Senate that could include the first public testimony from major witnesses.

    But that "consensus" among the 13 House Judiciary Committee Republicans about how to present their case that Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky set up a direct clash with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

    Lott and other Senate Republicans have expressed reluctance to hear from witnesses and yesterday Lott discussed with colleagues an abbreviated trial that would begin as early as Jan. 11 and end by Jan. 22, a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

    Such a quick timetable for the first presidential impeachment trial in 130 years would likely preclude the House "managers" from calling Lewinsky, Linda R. Tripp, Betty Currie, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and other key figures in the Clinton case to provide extensive testimony and be cross-examined in open session on the Senate floor.

    After a two-hour strategy session -- their first since the House impeached Clinton on Dec. 19 -- several of the House managers said they would encourage a full Senate trial: "I think they [the Senate] ought to allow us to present the evidence so they can make whatever decisions they make," Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) told reporters. "I personally believe they ought to hear from witnesses."

    The House prosecutors are charged with presenting the case against the president and the White House is entitled to call witnesses in Clinton's defense, but the Constitution gives the Senate the power to dictate how a trial will proceed. Several senators in both parties have publicly endorsed an expeditious trial, and Lott appeared to have fielded this message in conversations with GOP senators this week.

    Yesterday, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said, Lott discussed procedures with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and suggested the abbreviated timetable. The aide said a final decision would be made next week after Lott and Daschle have had a further opportunity to ascertain the views of other senators. Lott earlier yesterday said he did not think witnesses were necessary, but said he wants senators to vote on whether to convict Clinton and remove him from office before seriously considering censure as an alternative.

    The White House refused to comment directly on the House managers' plan to call witnesses, saying, "We'll be talking to the Senate, not the House," as press secretary Joe Lockhart put it. "We favor a bipartisan process that will bring closure fairly and expeditiously," he added.

    While declining to discuss their defense strategy in detail yesterday, White House aides said they were more inclined to favor Lott's stated preference for a quick, two-week process. "We're much closer to where Trent Lott is," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Officials said Clinton's lawyers were preparing what they vow will be a far more aggressive defense on the facts of the case, focusing on inconsistencies and holes in evidence that were largely played down in this month's House impeachment proceedings. There was no indication whether the defense wished to call witnesses, although officials left the door open to the idea of avoiding the need to call any witnesses through an agreement by both sides to "stipulate" to the record compiled largely by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury investigation and then fight it out on what that evidence means.

    Once the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 6, both houses are expected almost immediately to undertake several procedural steps leading to the formal convening of a Senate trial on the two articles of impeachment against Clinton.

    A senior Democratic Senate aide said most of this likely would be accomplished by the end of next week, allowing the trial to begin any time after that. The aide said Democrats expected the Senate to remain open through January instead of recessing until Clinton's State of the Union speech Jan. 19.

    The House prosecution team of 13 Judiciary Committee members, all of them lawyers, will be led by committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and accompanied by committee lead investigative counsel David P. Schippers and other GOP aides. They must be reappointed next week by the incoming Congress, and that is considered a formality despite early speculation that House Democrats would try to block the reappointment.

    McCollum described yesterday's managers' meeting as "totally procedural," although it was clear that he and several other managers had told colleagues they preferred to have a full-scale Senate trial, complete with witnesses.

    Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) noted that the Senate now dictates impeachment procedures, and said he and other House managers needed to be wary of "offending" Senate sensibilities.

    Still, Graham asked the Senate to consider that "after we're all dead and gone, do you have something to present history that will withstand scrutiny?" That could only be true, he said, if there is a full trial record.

    Among those interviewed after the session, only Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) expressed reluctance to call witnesses, saying, "We'll be modified in our approach by what the Senate says." Pressed further, he said he wished to call witnesses "only if it's absolutely necessary."

    Gekas, Hyde and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) are the only managers to have participated in previous impeachments of federal judges, so Gekas's words carried extra weight, but it was clear his sentiments did not extend to the group as a whole.

    "We need to be prepared to call fact witnesses and we intend to do that," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "That's our consensus. That's our intention." Neither Hutchinson nor any other managers would speculate on which witnesses they would bring to the floor, but noted that the impeachment articles were based on grand jury testimony and other evidence gathered by Starr.

    Senators for weeks have shied away from the public spectacle apparently envisioned by the prosecutors, and Lott yesterday made it clear that he had no interest in a prolonged trial: "Are witnesses required? I don't think so," Lott told the Associated Press. "I think the record is there to be reviewed, read, presented in a form that [House prosecutors] choose . . . and I think that would be sufficient."

    Besides discussing witnesses, the managers said they talked about how to divide the impeachment chores among themselves. Hutchinson said the team would eventually designate different members to make opening statements, cross-examine, make closing arguments and perform other tasks, but "this is a work in progress." Several members said the team will meet next week to firm up the assignments.

    There was little enthusiasm expressed for the suggestion last week by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) that senators peruse as-yet unreleased material concerning other alleged Clinton transgressions.

    "I personally don't think that material should be used in the trial that was not brought up before the House Judiciary Committee or members of the House were not privy to formally, before we voted on the articles of impeachment," said Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.).

    Hutchinson said he believes the Senate should confine itself to the evidence presented on the floor.

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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