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Prosecution Loses Ground in Senate

Lott,TWP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott heads into the Senate Chamber on Friday. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A1

    Momentum to put a quick end to the impeachment trial of President Clinton grew yesterday as one of the Senate's most influential members called for the case to be dismissed and House prosecutors scrambled to keep the chamber from disposing of the matter before hearing from witnesses.

    In a statement that stunned his colleagues and gave heart to the president's allies, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) announced that he will seek prompt dismissal of the case in order to "end this sad and sorry time for our country."

    Sensing the tide turning against his cause, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) rose on the Senate floor with an emotional appeal to reject Byrd's motion, even as he conceded he had failed to sway even a single Democrat.

    "I think by dismissing the articles of impeachment before you have a complete trial, you are sending a terrible message to the people of the country," Hyde told senators. "You're saying, I guess, perjury is okay if it's about sex, obstruction is okay even though it is an effort to deny a citizen her right to a fair trial."

    Hyde's plea came as White House lawyers and the House prosecutors engaged in their first direct debate on the evidence with each other during more than four hours of questioning by senators on the floor. The new phase in the trial gave senators their first chance to participate, through queries read by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

    The 50 questions also offered the opposing lawyers another chance to argue the facts of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges in an unscripted floor debate after six days of opening speeches. The exchanges were heated at times, as prosecutors angrily rebutted what they called White House "mischaracterizations" of the case and Clinton's defenders continued to deride them for a seemingly shifting set of charges against the president.

    The extraordinary last-minute efforts by Hyde also included a bid to compel Monica S. Lewinsky to talk with House managers and a letter urging Senate leaders to call Clinton to testify. The moves reflected the deterioration in the prospects that his side can muster the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the president of perjury and obstruction of justice -- and thus remove him from office.

    With what senators of both parties agreed was a strong presentation this week by White House defense lawyers, momentum has built among Democratic senators to try to end the trial somehow next week, before calling any witnesses, as House prosecutors want.

    While Republican leaders have yet to tip their hand about how they want to proceed, many members of their caucus were talking with Democrats and floating various scenarios for ending the trial, from simply voting to adjourn the trial to a quick up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment.

    "I think the wind's shifted at this point" toward a quick end to the trial, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "I can tell you a lot of us want to bring it to closure."

    The clearest sign of the momentum shift came midway through the day of questions, with the surprise statement in favor of dismissal from Byrd, the Senate's premier authority on constitutional powers and procedures.

    The announcement went a long way toward solidifying Democratic sentiment in favor of dismissal, but it was unclear yesterday whether there were enough Republicans to go along to achieve the required 51-vote majority when the motion is considered early next week.

    Byrd has been one of the Senate's toughest critics of Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky scandal, and virtually every scenario for convicting the president has included the 81-year-old West Virginian defecting from the Democratic camp. Byrd has kept his own counsel on the articles of impeachment approved last month by the House, and as recently as 10 days ago, he opposed early dismissal of the case.

    Even during the questioning on the Senate floor yesterday, Byrd sounded a skeptical note about the president's conduct: "Putting aside the specific legal questions concerning perjury and obstruction of justice, how does the president defend against the charge that by giving false and misleading statements under oath, such misconduct abused or violated some public trust?" Byrd asked White House lawyers.

    Byrd sat silently as White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff answered, giving no indication of whether the response satisfied him.

    In a statement released to reporters less than an hour later, Byrd made it clear that he was not trying to dismiss the case because he thought Clinton did no wrong. "In fact, I think he has caused his family, his friends and this nation great pain" and "weakened the already fragile public trust that has been placed in his care," he said.

    But he said he had become convinced that a two-thirds majority was not only not there now but also was "not likely to develop" even if the trial were continued to a final vote. "I have also become convinced that lengthening this trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited upon our nation," he said.

    Calling witnesses, as demanded by many Republicans, would not "add anything of consequence to this process." To the contrary, Byrd said, it would "only foster more of the same hallway press conferences and battle of press releases that are contributing to the division of our parties and our nation."

    Republicans close to the Senate GOP leadership spoke out quickly and forcefully against Byrd's proposal. "We have a constitutional duty to see this through . . . as trying as it may be," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.).

    "I think the great defender of Senate procedures has lost his way," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

    In an attempt to rally Republicans behind an alternative to Byrd's proposal, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) dusted off an earlier plan under which the trial might be adjourned if it becomes "absolutely" clear that the Senate lacks the two-thirds majority needed to convict and remove Clinton. It would be accompanied by a resolution recognizing the House impeachment as the "highest form" of censure that the Senate could approve short of removal from office.

    Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) did not offer any immediate comment on Byrd's proposal, but earlier in the day, he suggested another bipartisan, closed-door caucus -- similar to the one that produced procedures for the opening phase of the trial -- as a way of finding some kind of consensus on how to proceed. He said the caucus might be held Monday or Tuesday, presumably just as the Senate is nearing a vote on dismissal of the charges.

    "There's a feeling that sometime next week we might want to have another one of those Old Senate Chamber meetings," Lott told reporters. For their part, Democrats said Byrd's motion pumped new life into what appeared to be fading chances for approval of a motion to dismiss the charges against Clinton.

    "I think the chances have been significantly improved," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), speaking of the dismissal vote. If all 45 Democrats vote to dismiss, which appears possible now that Byrd will lead the effort, it would take only six Republicans for dismissal. Breaux said he knows of at least six Republicans who have expressed doubt about the need to prolong the proceedings in order to call witnesses.

    As the Senate struggled over an end-game strategy, Hyde and the other House managers worked furiously to try to keep their case alive and convince senators of the need to call witnesses before voting to end the trial.

    In a letter yesterday to Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) urging that Clinton be called to testify in the trial, Hyde said the House "would welcome the opportunity to participate in a fair examination of President Clinton should the Senate request his appearance at a deposition and subsequently at trial."

    Hatch said: "I don't think anyone's going to make that invitation." The White House has said Clinton will not appear, and Democrats do not want to ask him, arguing that such an invitation is simply a GOP political ploy to embarrass the president.

    "Because the President is the only individual with knowledge of almost every material fact relevant to the trial, the House believes that his testimony could greatly help to expeditiously and fairly bring this matter to a close," Hyde wrote after consulting with his fellow prosecutors. "The House respectfully recognizes the Senate's prerogatives in this matter and intends only to express its views for the Senate's consideration."

    Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.), another prosecutor, said House Republicans would want to question Clinton without restrictions.

    Judiciary Republicans have not formally decided which witnesses they will ask the Senate to approve next week, but several indicated that they still intend to call Lewinsky, presidential secretary Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, and White House aides John D. Podesta and Sidney Blumenthal.

    For all the aggressive tactics off the floor, Hyde appeared close to conceding during a late-afternoon appearance in the Senate well. "We needed Democratic support. So far we have none," he said. "That's okay. Let the process play itself out. But we were fair."

    Complaining about the "cavalier treatment of articles of impeachment," Hyde also sounded irritated at what he apparently sees as the cavalier treatment of his House team. "I know, oh do I know, what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body," he said. "But we're a constitutional annoyance, and I remind you of that fact."

    Staff writers Peter Baker, Eric Pianin, Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta and staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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