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Lott Floats Plan for Swift Test Vote

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 31, 1998; Page A1

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is circulating a plan for a swift up-or-down vote on whether President Clinton's alleged offenses - even if proved true - are serious enough to warrant removal from office, congressional sources said yesterday.

    The proposal for an abbreviated trial - lasting perhaps less than one week - won a tentative nod yesterday from Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), and it already has backing from key figures on both sides of the aisle. Sources said the idea for the format came from Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who suggested it to Lott last Sunday.

    The plan offers a road map for resolving the impeachment crisis on a quick, bipartisan basis. Many senators have said they want a speedy trial and a mechanism to consider censure as soon as it becomes clear that there are not the votes to convict the president of the two impeachment articles approved by the House.

    But major roadblocks remain, particularly from the conservative wing of the GOP. As details of the plan became known yesterday, it ran into resistance from leaders of conservative groups as well as House Republican prosecutors, who want to be able to call witnesses and present a full-scale case before a vote is taken. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) wrote Lott yesterday to express concern about key points in the proposal.

    "We need not sacrifice substance and duty for speed," Hyde said.

    But Daschle said in an interview he thought the Lott-circulated proposal "recognized the bipartisan desire to reach an expeditious and fair closure to this matter" and would probably command the support of most Democrats if they are satisfied when they see details. "The impression I have is this is a plan that might enjoy the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans," he added.

    Lott has not commented on the details of the plan, and his aides stressed he has not endorsed it. Congressional sources said the plan is being circulated for discussion by party caucuses that are planned when the 106th Congress convenes next Wednesday.

    At the White House, a senior official said Clinton still hopes that the case can end without a trial and with a censure. He has been urged by some friends, in the Senate and outside, to drop his efforts to end the case through censure and fight for acquittal in the Senate, even if this means an extended trial, according to White House officials. But this advice does not reflect Clinton's thinking, an official said.

    At least in conception, the new plan resembles an earlier proposal by House Democrats to consider first whether the president's alleged actions constituted impeachable offenses and then whether he was guilty of them. The proposal was shot down by the House GOP leadership.

    As two sources described it yesterday, the Senate plan now under consideration would have House-appointed prosecutors present their case on Monday, Jan. 11, the first day of the trial involving allegations that Clinton lied under oath and obstructed justice to cover up an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    The White House would make its response the following day. The day after that, senators would ask questions of both sides through Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will preside over the trial. On the fourth day, the Senate would vote on whether the alleged offenses, if proven, rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors the constitutional test for removal from office.

    Only if a two-thirds majority decided the offenses rose to this level would the trial continue and witnesses be heard. If two-thirds did not agree, the trial would end and the Senate would consider a resolution to censure the president. It takes a two-thirds majority to remove an impeached president, and no senator has suggested that such a majority exists now.

    Hyde, who is leading the House "managers" team, called Lott in Mississippi late Tuesday after hearing general outlines of the plan and has major concerns about it, according to Judiciary Committee sources.

    "We have concern with your proposal that the parties call no witnesses during the Senate's consideration of the articles [of impeachment]," Hyde wrote Lott yesterday. "We are also concerned with your proposal that you might foreclose any trial if the House position fails to get a two-thirds vote on a preliminary motion before the Senate has even had a full airing of the evidence."

    Hyde said he thought that, without the abbreviated procedure, House prosecutors would be ready to present evidence by the end of January. They might call only a "limited number of witnesses." The process need not be lengthy, he said.

    The new proposal could also run into trouble in the Senate itself, where several conservatives expressed mixed views about Lott's trial balloon. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) told a Capitol Hill news conference that House managers should be given wide latitude to call witnesses if their testimony is needed to make the case for conviction. "We have to give some deference to those who have to try this case. ... We should resist an understandable temptation to short-circuit this," DeWine said.

    DeWine said he regarded censure as a "political deal" that would weaken both the Constitution and the presidency. "I will vote against censure under any circumstances," he said.

    But Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who also opposes censure, said in an interview that he had encouraged Lott last weekend to find a speedy conclusion, if necessary without witnesses. "I'm not going to insist on a lot of witnesses," he said.

    And another censure opponent, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), said in an interview he thought witnesses might not have to be called unless Clinton disputes facts upon which the perjury and obstruction articles were built.

    Another potential pitfall for the Lott-circulated plan lies outside of Capitol Hill, where many conservative leaders with influence among Senate Republicans are pushing for a full trial of the president and his removal from office, with no consideration of censure.

    Some of these leaders voiced concern over any effort to truncate the trial and said the House prosecutors should be allowed to call any witnesses they like. Some also suggested that senators be granted access to other evidence not in the formal record, as recommended by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

    "It would be a mistake for the Senate to so limit the scope and the facts that they would be unable to have a full airing of the evidence," said Randy Tate, head of the Christian Coalition. "That would be going into the trial with one or both arms tied beyond your back."

    "I think the Republican leaders in the Senate ought to be very cautious here to avoid looking like they're undermining the fairly courageous stands that the House members took," added Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council.

    Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation said new evidence could emerge, or Clinton's lawyers could commit a "strategic error" that could change the course of the case. "I believe the Senate owes the American people a full trial, and that means calling witnesses and taking whatever length of time the House managers and the president's lawyers deem necessary," he said.

    The Rev. James C. Dobson, a conservative activist, warned that "history will not be charitable to those who opt for an 'easy way out' of this mess. Our philandering president must go."

    Several of the House managers argued that they should confer with the Senate and White House to establish some ground rules before decisions are made.

    "Whether to have live witnesses should be left on the table," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I hope a meeting will occur, and that there will be some accommodation for all parties."

    Staff writers Eric Pianin and John F. Harris contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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