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For House 'Managers,' Sense of Vindication

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page A27

    The Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee are used to negative publicity. They've been labeled zealots by many Democrats and accused of carrying out a vendetta against a duly elected president. Political analysts have blamed them for the party's poor performance in last November's midterm elections.

    But by yesterday afternoon, the 13 GOP prosecutors from the House had achieved a measure of vindication, pushing their perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against President Clinton farther than all but a few politicians imagined was possible a few months ago. Standing one after another in the well of the Senate for three days, the "managers" apparently made a strong enough case to persuade senators not to summarily dismiss the charges.

    "I don't know if the word is 'rewarding,' " said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "It's affirming that people really want to know the facts. It's an incredibly difficult decision to make, and they're thirsty for facts."

    The ultimate hurdle the House managers face -- persuading more than a quarter of Senate Democrats to vote for Clinton's conviction -- still appears difficult. But the managers made the most of their opportunity to lay before the Senate their case that Clinton's efforts to hide his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky were so serious that he should be removed from office.

    All 13 lawmakers spent much of the last two weeks preparing for their moment, and while their staffs provided background research and advice, each one wrote his remarks by himself. As Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) observed, now was not the time for ghostwriting: "This is the most awesome responsibility that will be thrust upon us."

    Two Republicans, Reps. George W. Gekas (Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), spoke without a prepared speech. Much of Graham's speech, a passionate argument for why Clinton's conduct warrants his removal from office, was improvised at the last minute.

    Graham said he woke up at 3:30 a.m. yesterday, thinking about Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit against Clinton, the case that would trigger the impeachment trial. He came to a conclusion that he would speak about hours later: that the president's refusal to disclose his relationship with Lewinsky during a deposition in that case amounted to "vetoing" the decision by the Supreme Court that her case could proceed.

    And only five minutes before he rose to speak, Graham decided he would recount his own family's uneasy experience with the civil rights movement in the South, starting to scribble autobiographical notes on the rough outline he had prepared.

    "I tried to talk to the Senate today; they've been lectured a lot," Graham said afterward. "I felt a closeness that shocked me, that they were very attentive."

    But other prosecutors managed to irritate some of the senators. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he heard a fair amount of repetition. "There is a feeling that we've heard the same story over and over again a number of times now," Leahy said. "Some may feel that's condescending, and that's treating us as if we're not paying attention."

    While most of the statements were scripted, there were moments of unpredictability. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), who had tinkered with his speech until 20 minutes before he was set to speak, nearly failed to get the final copy because his press secretary, Jeff Soulsby, was held up by sergeant at arms officials in the lobby near the Senate floor.

    When Soulsby was instructed to fill out a card to be delivered to Rogan, he protested, "The congressman goes in three minutes and this is his speech." He ultimately managed to summon Rogan out of the chamber.

    Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who delivered a short lecture on the law of perjury, said he "put a lot of preparation into making sure I didn't put senators to sleep."

    But Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he was not entirely successful.

    "I frankly wish I had drunk a few more cups of coffee," Lautenberg said, voicing hope that the White House will be more brief in its presentation next week.

    Most managers were nervous before rising to speak, but quickly eased into the kind of speechifying they practice regularly on the House floor. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) even had a clause at the end of his prepared speech instructing him to "[PAUSE -- relax]."

    "It takes a while to get into your arguing courtroom style," said Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor. "A hundred [senators] is a lot more than 12 jurors sitting in a box."

    Once it was over, Sensenbrenner and Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) made sure they picked up copies of Thursday's Congressional Record in the hallway of the Capitol. The publication contains a permanent record of their presentations to the Senate.

    "I'm getting history here," Bryant said, tucking nearly 20 copies under his arm. "A lot of people I know will want this."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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