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Senate Democrats Seek Early Vote on Clinton

Helms,TWP Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), left, chats with (left to right) Clinton defenders Greg Craig, Jim Kennedy and David Kendall. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A1

    Key Senate Democrats said yesterday they will try as early as Monday to force a final up-or-down vote on the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton, hoping to short-circuit a trial that they say has already gone on too long.

    Even though they will probably fail to force such a vote, at least on the first try, the Democrats said it was important to prompt a debate on the issue in hopes of putting new pressure on the Senate to refrain from calling witnesses and otherwise dragging out the proceedings.

    "I increasingly believe there's a shift taking place in the Senate as a whole on the issue of witnesses," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), one of several Democrats who are pushing to speed up the final vote on conviction or acquittal. "I think many Republicans are coming to question whether it would serve them at all to have additional witnesses."

    Kerry and the other Democrats acknowledged they face formidable obstacles in trying to bring the trial to a conclusion by early next week. Republicans control the Senate 55 to 45, and most of them have indicated that they do not want the trial to end until they hear from at least a few witnesses.

    But at this point in the trial, senators from both parties agree that the Senate lacks the two-thirds majority needed to convict Clinton and oust him from office. And with Clinton's lawyers having mounted what many senators said was a strong defense this week, several leading Democrats said they believe that GOP ardor for prolonging the trial may be cooling. Some Democrats held out at least some hope that a consensus might develop to conclude the trial at some point before taking a vote on calling witnesses.

    "I thought yesterday it was inevitable we'd have witnesses," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership. "Today I'm not so sure."

    Several Republicans disagreed, saying they believed that a majority still existed in their own ranks for both deposing witnesses and calling them to testify in person before the Senate a process that could last at least several weeks, if not more.

    "I do believe there is a majority for calling witnesses," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

    Under the rules adopted without dissent for the impeachment trial, the Senate may consider a motion to dismiss the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against Clinton immediately after the White House completes its opening presentation and senators have up to 16 hours to ask questions of both sides. That process is scheduled to be finished by Saturday, and Republican leadership aides say a vote on dismissing the case could come as early as Monday.

    But Kerry is proposing a different plan for ending the trial. Kerry told reporters last night he plans to make a motion to substitute a final up-or-down vote on conviction for the vote on dismissal. Such a motion would require unanimous consent approval of all 100 senators because it would essentially rewrite the script the Senate has been following.

    Kerry acknowledged that his prospects of winning are slim at best. But he said it was important to have the debate and put senators on record about whether "whether they want to prolong it [the trial] or not."

    Kerry also noted that some Democrats as well as Republicans including Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate's leading guardian of proper procedures have said they want to vote on conviction or acquittal instead of truncating the trial with a vote, such as dismissal, that sidesteps an up-or-down vote on the articles themselves.

    Thus they might be able to get more votes on Kerry's proposal than they would on a dismissal motion, which is likely to fail on a near-party-line vote. Democrats are looking for as many votes as they can get 40 at least, some of them say to demonstrate conclusively that the Senate does not have the two-thirds majority to evict Clinton from office.

    Kerry said he discussed his proposal to force an early vote on the articles with Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) earlier yesterday. He said Daschle "thought it had some merit but didn't make a final decision" on whether to support it.

    Kerry also served notice that, if he failed on the first attempt, he would try to revive the proposal later, when senators are preparing to vote on whether to call witnesses, giving them another opportunity to stop the trial.

    Several other senators, including Dorgan and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), proposed variations on Kerry's theme. "There are a lot of other possibilities," such as deposing witnesses, but moving to a final vote on the impeachment articles before calling any of the witnesses for testimony before the Senate, Breaux said.

    Like Kerry and Dorgan, Breaux said he believed that the Senate had not yet reached a firm decision on calling witnesses. "The longer this goes on, the more senators will say we've got to get rid of this," Breaux said.

    Meanwhile, a Senate Republican leadership spokesman said GOP senators were considering whether to "invite" Clinton to testify before the Senate in his own defense, even if House prosecutors choose not to call him as a witness. But he emphasized that no decision has been made, and several Republican senators said there is little enthusiasm for the idea.

    "I don't think anybody has any desire to do that . . . unless he (Clinton) wants to testify," Hatch said. The White House has said Clinton does not intend to appear.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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