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Senators Plot Strategy for Question Period

Lott,TWP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson arrive at the Senate chamber Wednesday. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A17

    As White House lawyers spent two days chopping up their case on the Senate floor, the House's impeachment "managers" were issuing half-hourly written "responses" to the president's defense yesterday and anticipating a chance to rebut what Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) branded as statements "just riddled with misrepresentations."

    "I would love the Senate to ask, 'What did you think of the White House presentation?' " Rogan said. "We could run up the clock on that."

    But excessive zeal in the impeachment trial's two-day question period – which could begin as early as this evening – may cause more grief than glory. The Senate is anxious to expedite matters, and its leaders were moving to make sure the question period does not turn into a "yes-you-did, no-I-didn't" set of harangues that will elicit little clarification from either defense or prosecution.

    "There should be a limit as to how much time to answer questions," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a member of a three-man GOP team deputized to work out Republican strategy for the question period. "You don't want anybody rambling off just to eat up the time. I'm afraid there's a potential to do that."

    As of yesterday, both parties were still trying to plot strategy for a 19th-century procedure whose very unwieldiness guarantees considerable tedium, even were respondents to keep their answers to monosyllables. The question period is scheduled to begin Friday, but a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said there was considerable interest in both parties to begin the question period today if the White House finishes its presentation early.

    Under Senate rules governing impeachment, senators will be required to sit silently at their desks in the chamber during questions, as they have during the opening presentations by the managers and the White House. Questions must be submitted in writing to U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the trial's presiding officer, who will then ask them. Questioning will last for 16 hours spread over two days.

    Democratic sources said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) is conducting talks with Lott to arrange a bipartisan agreement on the length of responses and other rules governing the questions. The two have reached a "gentlemen's agreement" dividing the time equally between the two parties and alternating in two-hour chunks. This partisan arrangement is unprecedented in impeachments, and it was still unclear yesterday whether senators will agree to cooperate.

    Neither side was willing to discuss in any detail what it intends to ask and of whom it intends to ask it. Hatch said his team had collected 70 GOP questions and was storing them in a database.

    Republican leadership aides, without being specific, said their side would likely ask about how former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky came to return gifts from President Clinton to Clinton secretary Betty Currie, and what Clinton's top aides were told by the president about his relationship with Lewinsky.

    On the Democratic side, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) has already said he wishes to question the House managers about their description of a Dec. 11, 1997, interview between Lewinsky and Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and its relationship to Lewinsky's job search. Several Democrats say they expect to explore this and other possible holes opened by the White House in the prosecution's case.

    It was the effectiveness of the White House presentation that has sharpened the managers' eagerness to respond. But Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), like many of the other managers, wanted to know more about the "very vague" rules on questioning: "Can we talk for 30 minutes, for 45 minutes?" he asked, adding that he assumed Rehnquist would control the time.

    Rehnquist will indeed be in control, unless, as seemed likely yesterday, the two parties reach a procedural agreement to divide time and limit responses. Lott spokesman John Czwartacki and Democrats said that using Lott and Daschle as "conduits" for questions would allow the proceedings to move in a logical order and preclude duplication.

    Czwartacki envisioned a system in which Lott would sit at his desk with a pile of GOP senators' question cards, and submit them one at a time to Rehnquist. Follow-ups would be handled the same way, although Hatch acknowledged that follow-ups were "a worry to us."

    The Democrats appeared less settled. Deputy floor leader Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), said the party's course was "not clear," and "there are no agreed-upon procedures." Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he favored using Daschle as a conduit as "a reasonable approach" in avoiding chaos.

    Durbin admitted that he found the procedure awkward and "strange, but it probably made sense in the last century." Others suggested, however, that the Senate's forebears might have had the right idea in devising a way to drain as much of the drama as possible out of a potentially explosive proceeding.

    "It's the first time members will be able to talk," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "But it will probably lose its sense of the emotional content. It will be more neutral in tone."

    Staff writer Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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