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Strong Case Made, Both Sides Say

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page A27

    Senators from both parties agreed yesterday that House prosecutors made a powerful case for convicting President Clinton by focusing the Senate's attention on the facts of the case for the first time and impressing them with the seriousness of the charges.

    The strength of the House presentation jolted some Democrats, who stressed the need for the Clinton defense team to mount a serious effort to rebut the evidence and demonstrate that the president's conduct, even if proved, does not justify removing him from office.

    "They did a good job. Any fair-minded person would have to say they made a powerful presentation," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "The White House has to address the facts, they've got to deal with the fundamental question of the threshold for impeachment [and] what is the appropriate way to deal with the presidential misconduct contained in these charges." Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said the House "raised the bar by which the president's representatives have got to jump over next week."

    Still, while the presentation may have reinforced some Republicans' antipathy toward Clinton and raised the anxiety level among Democrats, there was little evidence that the "managers" had pushed the Senate appreciably closer to the two-thirds majority it will need to convict Clinton and remove him from office: "If you're looking at making a hard-nosed judgment on it, I don't think it changed any minds," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

    Senators of both parties also took care to note that they had heard only half the case, but even some Democrats urged Clinton's lawyers to put on the strongest defense possible when they begin their presentation Tuesday. They warned that the White House had to do better than the largely legalistic defense they mounted in the House.

    "Their defense is going to have to be more extensive and more persuasive," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.)

    Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a potential swing voter on whether eventually to call witnesses in the case, urged the White House to produce a "point-by-point rebuttal of the facts and then make a presentation on the basis of the constitutional standards."

    Failure to do so, some senators warned, could have dire consequences as the trial proceeds. "If I were the defense . . . I don't think they should think it's going to be a piece of cake," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). "The conventional wisdom is the votes are not there to convict, and so I think there's some complacency. Well, you never know."

    In dozens of interviews with senators over the past two days, The Washington Post found a Senate generally cautious about predicting the outcome of the trial and intent on conducting a fair and, if possible, nonpartisan proceeding.

    Still, it was clear that senators were starting to break sharply along party lines on the question of whether Clinton's alleged offenses are serious enough to consider removing him from office. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called the House presentation a "prima facie case of great power -- a great case of great power." But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a senior committee Democrat, said that despite "making the case as good as it could be made," the managers "didn't get there."

    And on the question of calling witnesses, which will be decided next week, there was a clear partisan split. Republican leadership sources said that before the House presentation it was doubtful whether the Senate could have mustered a majority to call witnesses. A solid majority -- expected to be composed almost solely of Republicans -- appears likely now, the sources said, but they cautioned that the math could change once the White House took its turn on the Senate floor.

    Still, some Republicans were at least publicly reserving judgment on this crucial procedural question. "If it is just going to be repetitive, redundant type of stuff, that would be an argument against witnesses," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "I would not say yes or no to witnesses at this point."

    After three days of White House statements beginning Tuesday, the Senate will take two days to question the prosecution and defense before considering expected motions to dismiss the case and to depose witnesses, a first step toward actual testimony on the Senate floor.

    The chief strategy of Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), one leadership source said, "is to be fair" and "to move as expeditiously as possible," but Democrats say that opening the door to witnesses could prolong the trial indefinitely.

    "I think it will go into March and April," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. "It is the last thing I want, the last thing the country wants." But Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) called this a "bogus" argument: "You can go through a lot of witnesses in a single day," Smith said. "It's a scare tactic that should not frighten us."

    If the Republicans appeared energized by the presentation and enthusiastic about hearing witnesses, the Democrats were still virtually united in their opposition to witnesses and in their skepticism of the House managers' case.

    Democrats conceded that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and other managers were adroit in weaving together the evidence, but they argued there was nothing new in the case and that there are numerous counterpunching opportunities for the White House.

    They noted, for example, that the managers relied heavily on supposition and circumstantial evidence in making the case that the president repeatedly lied about his sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and that he tried to cover up the relationship and obstruct justice.

    Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said the managers had drawn so many inferences in laying out the obstruction of justice charge that their interpretations of Lewinsky's testimony "directly conflicted" with his own reading in the case. Democrats had similar complaints when the case was in the House.

    Democrats also said much of the case against Clinton stemmed from allegations of perjury in his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case -- rejected by the House as an article of impeachment.

    "Now [the House managers] spend hours resurrecting these matters," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "It really raises a question of what their strategy is. Are they really holding fast to the articles of impeachment they brought over? Or are they straying from them in a bid to bolster their case?"

    Kennedy said that the managers failed to show that Clinton's misdeeds -- even if proved -- constituted an impeachable offense for an elected president: "The sanctity of that election in terms of being reflective of a free people is something that has to be looked at -- and respected and revered as well," Kennedy said.

    Several Republicans, including Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and John H. Chafee (R.I.), acknowledged that even with their strong start, the managers still have their work cut out for them in making their case stick. "I think there's a pretty high standard there to meet," Grassley said.

    And at least one Republican was openly skeptical about the wisdom of removing a president in a case stemming from a sexual indiscretion: "Lying about a noncrime can be converted into a high crime by the way you handle it," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.). "That sets a pretty low standard to me."

    Still, the managers case seemed to thrive in part because it was the first time that many senators had concentrated on the evidence and seen it displayed before them in a coherent way. Senators of both parties cited Reps. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for their presentations.

    "People say there's nothing new in all this, and there's probably not," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). "But they put it all in very concise terms and presented a sequence of activities and their relationship to the law which, from their point of view, makes the case against the president."

    And for an audience filled with people who are public figures in their own right, the presentation suddenly made the case more familiar. "I don't think many people understood the context," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). "Clinton was not required to give answers that would put him in jeopardy, but a decision was made to run the risk of serious legal difficulties by protecting his political interest."

    Still, more than half of the senators are lawyers, and most of them were very cautious about where the case has come thus far. Under the unusual impeachment trial procedures, the president's prosecutors had three uninterrupted days in which to level their charges.

    Beginning Tuesday it's the defense's turn, and on Tuesday night Clinton will deliver his State of the Union address as a president very much engaged in the nation's business.

    "It's like what I used to say to juries: 'You're going to hear the prosecutor open his case,' " said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a former trial lawyer and ardent Clinton defender. "When he gets done, you're going to think my client is just the guiltiest person you ever saw in your life. I hope when I get done you'll change your mind and think he's innocent."

    Staff writers Susan Schmidt, Barbara Vobejda, Dan Morgan, Stephen Barr, Helen Dewar, William Claiborne, Spencer S. Hsu and Thomas B. Edsall and staff researchers Ben White and Nathan Abse contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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