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Clinton Aides Now Tossing Darts at GOP

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 29, 1999; Page A17

    White House aides admit they occasionally had to bite their tongues, but for the past month their talking points were clear: There was to be no political trash-talk about the Senate's handling of President Clinton's impeachment trial.

    Now, the old rules are off. The new White House line is to dismiss the continuing Senate proceedings as a questionable and even illegitimate exercise, a spectacle for which the country should hold Republicans to blame.

    "America, looking in on this process, now understands that . . . this trial continues to go on, and the fact that the Senate continues to be diverted from [its] business, is the responsibility of the Republican majority," White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart said from the briefing room lectern yesterday.

    Such rhetoric has a familiar ring: It is an echo of the derisive refrain the White House took all through the House impeachment debate. But for the past month, Clinton and his aides have made a clear distinction in its attitude toward the Senate. In part because Democratic senators insisted on it, the White House has treated the Senate trial with deference and for the most part declined to cast aspersions on the motives of Republican senators.

    But in the wake of Wednesday's Senate votes in favor of deposing witnesses and against dismissing the case which broke almost exactly along partisan lines presidential advisers say they are liberated to turn up the political heat toward GOP senators, much as they did during the House proceedings. It is a more natural stance for a White House that traditionally has not shied from going on an aggressive counterattack against its accusers.

    "They own it now," one White House adviser said yesterday of the trial, which polls show is unpopular with the public, most of whom hold Republicans responsible for it.

    The shots that Lockhart was taking yesterday were only a mild version of the ones he was daily casting toward House Republicans before and after last month's impeachment vote. But they were also markedly tougher than the things he was saying even earlier this week.

    Republican senators, he said, are "political wizards," who are "playing politics" by continuing Clinton's trial even after it is apparent that there is not a two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office. "The Republicans," he added, "have made the choice that they want to keep this around for a while."

    White House aides said last night's votes approving a Republican plan for handling witnesses and setting a schedule for the balance of the trial also spelled the end of bipartisanship. Clinton aides, joined by Senate Democrats, objected strongly to allowing Monica S. Lewinsky's deposition to be videotaped, saying Republicans might use the video in a distorted way.

    "It's one more weapon for a process that is not on the level; why arm them with more?" said one senior White House official.

    Even while turning up the temperature on the impeachment debate as a whole, the White House turned it down on one particular question. The Clinton team has for the most part withdrawn its threats to seek its own extensive "discovery" period if Republicans were allowed to seek witnesses. The Democratic plan for concluding the trial, which failed to pass yesterday but was supported by the White House, would have assured a Feb. 12 ending of the trial, guaranteeing that there would not be a lengthy discovery phase.

    Clinton advisers say their side might have been helped by more extensive discovery but decided to stop pressing this point for now after concluding there was little chance the Republicans would grant it.

    Instead, the White House lodged its most aggressive objections toward a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would allow senators to take two votes. One would be a "finding of fact" in which senators first would vote on whether or not Clinton is guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice, then vote separately on the question of whether he should be removed from office. Such a procedure would be illegitimate, Lockhart said, since it is not called for in the Constitution, with an apparent purpose of harming Clinton even though House prosecutors have not made a sufficient case for conviction.

    Republicans yesterday said the emergence of the Collins plan and the heightening of the White House rhetoric were not coincidental.

    "What they've been planning all along is to pretend that the [failure] to get a two-thirds majority to remove him from office amounts to an exoneration of Bill Clinton," said Republican strategist Edward Gillespie.

    The White House's current strategy, he speculated, is to try to "polarize" the Senate proceedings as much as possible as a way of minimizing the appeal of the Collins plan.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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