Senators Look for Ways to Halt Impeachment Proceedings
By Helen Dewar and Guy Gugliotta
With no sign the Senate has the votes to remove President Clinton from office, senators of both parties have launched informal, behind-the-scenes efforts to find a strategy for ending the impeachment trial – but no consensus has yet developed on how to do it.
Only days after the Senate seemed all but certain to call witnesses and prolong the trial, several Republicans from across the ideological spectrum said yesterday they are now leaning against hearing such testimony and Democrats claimed that momentum is building to conclude the trial quickly.
The Democrats said that another half-dozen Republicans have privately indicated varying degrees of skepticism about calling witnesses and that their skepticism is deepening.
"We may be proving the president has been an aggressive philanderer and an adulterer but you don't remove him on that," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), a moderate conservative. "There's still a possibility for witnesses but the need for them, I think, is diminishing as the case seems more and more clear."
But with crucial procedural votes approaching next week, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) voiced caution about any move to end the trial precipitously. Senators "would need to think long and hard," he said, before declining to hear new testimony, at least through depositions of such key figures as Monica S. Lewinsky or presidential secretary Betty Currie.
Lott noted that the Senate will vote, perhaps as early as Monday, on dismissing the charges. "Keep in mind that if you cut it off . . . you don't have an opportunity to vote on subpoenas, you don't have depositions . . . you don't have a chance to even debate whether or not you'd have a single witness," he said. "That's a big leap of faith that I'm not sure the Senate's ready to take yet."
While reluctant to provide details, senators said informal discussion about an exit strategy were being conducted on a variety of fronts. Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), while not conducting the talks, were being kept apprised of their progress, senators said.
Such activity was a sign of the big stake both parties have in a swift conclusion to the trial. Republicans are bucking a president with soaring approval ratings, without any apparent hope of mustering the two-thirds majority necessary to expel him from office. They are also under pressure from GOP governors and other leading Republicans who fear permanent damage to their party, including electoral losses in 2000, if the trial persists.
Democrats believe they have the case won at this point but fear that calling witnesses could only invite new risks for Clinton.
But there is also a downside for both parties. Many conservative groups with strong influence in the Senate GOP are pushing for Clinton's conviction and removal. And Democratic sources have said some Senate Democrats are reluctant to appear hostile to the idea of hearing any witnesses or to let Clinton escape without any punishment.
If the 45 Democrats hold ranks solidly against witnesses – which itself is uncertain – it would take six Republicans to provide the simple majority needed to end the trial without calling witnesses.
Those Republicans with misgivings about witnesses span the GOP's ideological spectrum, suggesting a broad skepticism about doing anything that would unduly prolong the trial.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), one of the GOP's most conservative senators, said if he had to vote now he would vote against witnesses and that he was not alone among Republicans in that sentiment. He said he would listen to arguments for witnesses but "if it's going to be the same old stuff, they're wasting their time."
Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.), one of the party's most moderate senators, who only a few days ago said he could foresee calling a half-dozen witnesses, said he now doubted that any would be needed. A witness "should have some essential information" to enable the House to make its case, he said, and thus far: "I don't know of anyone who would help."
In addition, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who last week said he was "convinced" that at least two witnesses should be deposed for the trial, adopted a more tentative tone yesterday. "It may be necessary to have some additional evidence," Stevens said.
But Senate Republican Conference Chairman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said he believed witnesses were a "forgone conclusion."
Other Republicans also questioned whether a groundswell against witnesses was emerging. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) suggested that any GOP softness was because of Democratic "spin." It's "wishful thinking," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who earlier helped draft a plan to truncate the trial, said: "From my perspective, it's very difficult to argue that there are great factual discrepancies and not hear witnesses."
But many Democrats insisted that any momentum was now moving their way, even though it was not entirely clear where it was leading. "The wind is changing, the ground is not yet shifting," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Several senators from both parties expressed growing interest in another bipartisan caucus similar to the one that produced the procedure for the opening phase of the trial but left undecided whether to hear witnesses.
A key question was whether senators might vote to depose witnesses, while forgoing live testimony at a later time if they are satisfied with the results of the lawyers' questioning. Under bipartisan procedures adopted two weeks ago, "you can vote to depose before you vote to actually call the witnesses," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), meaning the Senate can screen testimony before putting witnesses before the Senate.
But some Democrats, including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), are working on a plan that could bring a final up-or-down vote on the two articles of impeachment against Clinton next week, even before the vote on depositions. Their problem is that it would require unanimous consent – meaning approval of all 100 senators – to change the earlier procedural agreement, which did not anticipate a vote on the articles until later in the trial.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said he would like to see Clinton and the House prosecutors agree to stipulate what witnesses would say if called, based on their testimony in the existing record. "I believe you could probably stipulate that the testimony given by all the witnesses under oath in their own minds was truthful testimony and therefore it's going to be the same when they testify again," he said.
Breaux has yet to win approval of the White House or the House prosecutors for his idea.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Eric Pianin contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company