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GOP Struggling to Find Way Out

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page A1

    For Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and the Senate's 54 other Republicans, the moment is fast approaching when they must confront the dilemma that has plagued them since the start of President Clinton's impeachment trial: How to find a quick and honorable way to fold a losing hand.

    "We are just trying to get to the truth," Lott told reporters yesterday. "We are trying to have a fair process here, but one that gets us to a conclusion, as soon as possible, without rushing to judgment."

    Virtually no one contends the Senate has anything approaching the two-thirds majority needed to convict Clinton and throw him out of office. The Democrats suggest there is no reason to continue, and have offered a motion to dismiss the case – which was debated in a secret session last night. Republicans have largely pressed for an orderly process ending in an up-or-down vote on two impeachment articles.

    Assuming the motion to dismiss fails – as now appears likely – Lott has two options, both of which carry political risks for his party. The Senate may vote tomorrow on a motion to subpoena witnesses, but if it passes, it will probably extend the trial by weeks – an outcome some national GOP figures worry could antagonize voters angry over impeachment.

    On the other hand, Lott could "cut a deal" to truncate the trial, a ploy certain to earn cries of foul from the GOP's conservative supporters and the implacable House prosecutors.

    "I think that the Constitution requires a trial," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) the lead prosecutor told reporters yesterday. "I don't think this will ever be 'behind us,' which is the phrase of the day, until the articles are voted on, up or down."

    Under the current Senate rules governing impeachment, the quickest honorable exit might come if the motion to subpoena witnesses fails. Members would then go immediately to closing arguments and votes on each of the two articles of impeachment. In that way, Lott could argue that he did not short-circuit the process – but simply lacked votes to meet the prosecutors' demand to present live testimony.

    For more than a week, Democrats have been virtually unanimous in opposition to calling witnesses, and by yesterday enough Republicans were wavering to ensure that the vote will be a cliffhanger. "That could be a very, very close vote," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), following last night's secret session.

    But cutting a deal also could prove difficult. Several senators said there were continual discussions through the evening in the cloakrooms and elsewhere about how to expedite the trial, but that no decisions were reached or new strategies laid out. One idea gaining currency among Republicans was for a limited number of witness depositions, with the possibility that the testimony could be videotaped and shown on the Senate floor.

    Earlier yesterday, the Democrats offered to withdraw their motion to dismiss the case in return for Republicans abandoning support for the motion to subpoena witnesses. The Senate would then go to a vote on articles of impeachment and finish by the weekend.

    This would require unanimous agreement on an impeachment rules change, and large numbers of Republicans immediately rejected it out of hand. "I'm not in favor of that," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). "I think we have to move forward."

    DeWine will probably vote to subpoena witnesses, but understands that "there is a concern of many members on length of time." Still, he suggests "there's a possibility of a bipartisan agreement on witnesses – a very limited number, and very limited in scope." And with this kind of arrangement, continued Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate "could get done by Feb. 5 or before."

    But some Republicans agree with Democrats that such beliefs are a pipe dream. "If you decide to grant witnesses," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), "it's questionable whether you could ever cap the number the president's lawyers could call, because it would seem to raise the issue of denying the president his right to defend himself."

    As the trial wore on, Republicans professed fealty to Lott, their pragmatic leader, who is juggling myriad conflicting loyalties – to his GOP colleagues, to conservative pressure groups and to his party, but also to the Senate as a whole and to history.

    "We have given great latitude to the leader to wind this thing up with dispatch," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), and "at the same time doing it in a fair way, and at the same time getting at the truth."

    But finding common ground is a slow process, made worse because the long trial hours that senators have spent sitting meekly and silently in the chamber have limited the time they can schmooze with each other. Consensus in the Senate often boils up as the consequence of dozens of small conversations spread over days.

    A dramatic example of Senate frustration came in a basement vestibule near the Senate subway at midday yesterday, when Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) broke in on a gaggle of reporters interviewing Grassley to find out "what your side decided" in its morning caucus.

    Grassley, somewhat taken aback at first, told Baucus "we would really like to get a bipartisan agreement," but then got into the spirit of the discussion. Soon the two senators were hungrily debriefing each other on each other's mornings.

    Still, without a precut deal, the question of the week is whether enough Republicans will vote with the Democrats to kill the witness subpoena motion and trigger the exit strategy.

    At present, GOP senators appear to divide into four broad categories on this crucial question, cutting across typical ideological clusters. There is a short list of senators – perhaps no more than three or four – who have indicated they do not favor witnesses. "I don't want to create a spectacle," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "And I'm not by myself."

    The second category, somewhat larger, includes those who are unfavorably disposed toward witnesses, and who have warned the House prosecutors that they must have a limited witness list and very good arguments why subpoenas should be issued. "I think we should take whatever evidence is relevant, material and not redundant," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

    The third category, considerably larger, includes senators who favor witnesses, as long as the prosecutors make good arguments for them. "I think the House should be allowed to make its case," said Chafee. "I'd like to wind this thing up with dispatch, at the same time doing it in a fair way."

    The answer on whether the motion will pass probably lies in this squishy midsection, and not among the uncertain number in the fourth category: those who have decided to let the process play out and call witnesses. "We have a constitutional obligation to render fair and impartial justice," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). "It doesn't matter how bad we want to get on to other business."

    Staff writers Eric Pianin, Spencer Hsu, and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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