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President Clinton, Social Security and Medicare President Clinton discusses Social Security at the White House on Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A17

    For weeks, President Clinton's defense team has put Republicans and the public alike on notice: If the House prosecutors succeed in their drive to introduce witnesses into the impeachment trial, the president's side will have no choice but to assert legal rights that could drag the proceedings on indefinitely.

    After yesterday's virtually party-line votes approving three GOP-requested witnesses, a central question hanging over the trial is whether Clinton's side is ready to make good on the threat. "Listen, we're not bluffing," said White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart.

    Even so, the Clinton side's decision on whether to attempt its own elaborate legal discovery – never mind the delays this would cause – is more complicated than the White House's public statements have suggested. It remains more likely than not, several Clinton legal and political advisers said yesterday, that the defense team will not make discovery motions even after depositions are taken from Monica S. Lewinsky, Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

    If these depositions do not fundamentally help Republicans or change senators' basic factual understanding of the case, there would be little reason to court further delays in a trial that seems virtually certain to result in Clinton's acquittal.

    The question of how aggressively Clinton should pursue legal discovery has been a subject of intense discussion within the White House. Defense lawyers have stressed that, if Republicans seek witnesses, Clinton would be foolhardy not to pursue witness depositions and document discovery of his own, pursuing every possible angle that might help his case in the way any well-financed criminal defendant would.

    Political advisers emphasized that the greater risk for Clinton is not of being thrown out of his presidency but letting it slip away over time as the impeachment drama dominates the capital and limits his ability to work with Congress on an issue agenda.

    Against this backdrop, yesterday's Senate votes created a dilemma for the White House: Aides had to treat as bad news a development that many believed was, on balance, good news.

    The public line was anger at the Senate vote on witnesses and frustration at the failure of a motion to dismiss the case. The private reaction among a range of Clinton advisers was relief – and a guarded, tentative belief that the impeachment drama may at last be reaching the closing act.

    In persuading all but one of the Senate's 45 Democrats to vote against witnesses and for dismissing the case, the Clinton defense team had "beat the spread" of public expectations, as one adviser said yesterday, and validated the conventional wisdom that the two-thirds majority needed to remove Clinton from office does not exist.

    But, a year into the Lewinsky scandal, most Clinton aides say they have lost all faith in the conventional wisdom. At numerous points, widespread expectations that the impeachment process would come to an early close – after the midterm elections; in committee; on the House floor – proved false.

    Most of all, the impending witness depositions preserve an element of unpredictability. If there are no surprises, Clinton's legal team will try to use the momentum from yesterday's votes to argue that the trial should be brought to a close, advisers said. But if Republicans make gains from the depositions, defense lawyers insist that they will need to plunge into legal discovery of their own. If this happens, the top priority of political advisers is that the public blame Republicans, not Clinton, for delays in a case that polls show most people have long since grown weary.

    As it now stands, Clinton's private polls show the public blaming Republicans for the delay, aides said. But White House officials, and some informal advisers who participate in a daily conference call with the White House, have worried about how to maintain this support if it ends up that Clinton's side demands more time. "There's a tension between saying 'this case has gone on too long' and saying 'we need more discovery,'" said one frequent outside adviser to the White House.

    But the two positions are not incompatible, Lockhart said. Clinton had agreed to conduct the trial on the record compiled by an adversary, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, he noted, but if prosecutors want to go beyond that record to help their case it is only fair that the defense do the same. "Using this record, as prejudicial as it is, is like tying our hands behind our back, but we accepted that," he said. "But this is like blindfolding us."

    Clinton began his day with a speech talking about saving Social Security, then moved into a meeting about saving salmon. It was during a conference call with governors about the fish that the Senate's twin votes occurred.

    Saving his presidency, as various senior Clinton advisers assessed the situation yesterday, will come down to a judgment by Republican senators about how much deference they wish to show to House Republicans and the party's conservative base. GOP senators who would like to be done with the unpopular trial and know as a practical matter that convicting Clinton is nearly impossible are grappling for a way "to sue for 'peace with honor,' " said one Democratic strategist who works closely with the Clinton defense.

    But one White House adviser yesterday scoffed at the suggestion that Republican senators owed it to their House colleagues not to dismiss the impeachment case. "That's like saying the Titanic owed something to the iceberg," said White House counselor Paul Begala.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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