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In Back Rooms, Next Steps Are Weighed

Sen. Strom Thurmond arrives at Senate chambers Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) arrives at Senate chambers for opening day of the Clinton impeachment trial. (Dudley M. Brooks — The Post)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page A19

    While television cameras focused on the Senate floor, lawmakers struggled in the back rooms of Capitol Hill yesterday to resolve disputes over witnesses, motions and other procedural questions crucial in determining President Clinton's fate.

    In one meeting with a small group of GOP colleagues, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) ended a wide-ranging discussion of agenda and impeachment ethics by raising the explosive issue of whether Clinton should be invited to appear as a witness in his own trial. Some Republicans say the president should be asked to respond directly to the allegations against him.

    "I think he should be invited, or at least I don't have a problem with him being invited," GOP Whip Don Nickles (Okla.) told reporters.

    The Senate is operating on a fragile bipartisan peace treaty that covers the opening presentations and questioning that began yesterday. But the script for Act I runs out at the end of next week, and senators convened in private meetings yesterday morning to plot their next moves – though nothing was settled.

    Democrats gathered in private for nearly two hours, briefly talking about their legislative strategy for the coming year, but spending most of their meeting devising a plan to pepper the House prosecutors with tough questions on the Senate floor.

    Some Democrats also complained that they had been slighted when several Republican senators met with the House prosecutors to discuss witnesses earlier this week, without Democratic participation. They said it threatened the spirit of bipartisan cooperation embodied in the trial procedure plan approved by both parties last Friday. But Democrats had their own private briefing this week by Democratic attorneys with the House Judiciary Committee.

    "Our desire is to be as cooperative and nonpartisan as we can be," Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said yesterday. "Obviously this has many twists and turns that we can't anticipate at this point. We can only take it one step at a time."

    It was all skirmishing in what is shaping up as the trial's next battle: whether there will be witnesses; if so, how many; and what their testimony will say. The House prosecutors' presentation, largely a recitation of information already known, is designed in part to convince the Senate that witnesses are both necessary and desirable.

    After the trial recessed for the evening, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), reflecting the views of a number of Republicans, said the House prosecutors made a strong case "that if there were questions in doubt that the members can't resolve," then witnesses should be called. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) countered that he learned nothing new in yesterday's presentation and that "I would hope we would not call witnesses."

    Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) drew the obvious conclusion: "I expect we will have a very vigorous debate on the witness issue in the next two days."

    Earlier in the day, Lott met in his office with an ad hoc group of eight to 10 Republicans who have been deputized to "open channels of communication" and encourage discussion about difficult procedural questions, a GOP leadership aide said.

    Most of the meeting was an attempt to determine the "obligation of senators talking to the press," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the working group. "The consensus is we should not be talking evidence," Collins said. The group started to consider language for written guidelines for senators.

    As they were about to leave, Lott asked "what they thought about the president testifying," the leadership aide said. It was a typical question from Lott, who tends to move gradually toward decisions after gathering opinions from colleagues.

    And what he asks, the aide said, does not necessarily mean that the subject is on his mind's front burner. Summoning Clinton, the aide added, is not on the horizon, but Lott believes "these are questions that ought to be asked" because the Senate may have to resolve the issue within the next couple of weeks.

    As intended, his casual question elicited a barrage of opinions. The Senate has never before summoned a defendant in an impeachment case, and the White House has indicated the president has no intention of appearing before the Senate. Daschle noted yesterday that he had been opposed to any witnesses "from the beginning," so "I guess that would include the president."

    Other Democrats explored the issue in greater depth, but were lukewarm at best: "The president, if he wants to, certainly will have the right," Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said, but he added: "I doubt we have the authority to subpoena him under the separation of powers."

    Some Republicans were more enthusiastic. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the Republican prosecutors "would have to present a case" for Clinton's appearance, and the Senate "would have to vote, just like with any other witness." But could Clinton be compelled to testify? "I don't know," Inhofe said.

    Still, as Lott perhaps intended, a consensus gradually emerged: Clinton could testify if he wished, or if the Senate could talk him into it, but a subpoena was probably out of bounds: "I would vote to allow him to testify, but I would not in any way vote to coerce him," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).

    For their part, Democrats vented complaints about a meeting Monday between several GOP senators and House prosecutors, as reported by the New York Times, to discuss witnesses. They expressed annoyance that prosecutors had begun contacting potential witnesses, including Monica S. Lewinsky and Kathleen E. Willey, who has alleged Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance.

    After the Senate agreed last week to postpone a decision on witnesses until the conclusion of opening presentations, there was an understanding that Republicans and Democrats would confer over the issue. On Monday, three GOP senators – Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) – met with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and other members of the prosecution team to review the evidence and begin establishing standards for calling witnesses, according to Specter.

    Democrats said they thought the issue was to have been postponed. "Most people thought it was highly inappropriate," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she and others were "a little stunned" that the prosecution would approach witnesses "when the whole issue was not supposed to be even raised" until later this month.

    Specter said Daschle and other Democrats were invited to take part but they declined. Daschle said yesterday that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) asked him about the advisability of having such a meeting, but Daschle said, "It was my view that it was in violation of the agreement."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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