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GOP Seems Poised to Risk Bipartisanship

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  • By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A10

    After a flurry of high-pressure, closed-door talks among Senate GOP leaders and the House Republican "managers," Republicans appeared poised yesterday to keep the impeachment trial of President Clinton going beyond this week and to depose witnesses, including Monica S. Lewinsky.

    But even as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Republicans savor their tactical victory, the Republicans may have inadvertently contributed to the realization of their worst fear: that Clinton, in the end, will escape without any punishment at all.

    On one hand, the Senate is about to make it more difficult for the House GOP managers to make their case that Clinton deserves to be removed from office by denying them far-ranging latitude to call witnesses.

    But on the other, in closing ranks around a plan to call only Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal, Republicans have put at risk the bipartisan comity that has characterized the early stages of the trial and, some senators said, complicated efforts to adopt a resolution censuring the president for his conduct.

    "We've been able to largely avoid partisan votes until now, but I'm skeptical," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters yesterday. "I think on the vote on dismissal and on the vote on witnesses, it sounds as if the lines may be drawn. I hope that is not the case, but it may be."

    But Republicans see their approach as a workable compromise that would keep their party intact, while assuring that both the House managers and the White House have a reasonable opportunity to flesh out their cases and resolve contradictions in grand jury testimony with live witnesses.

    Reflecting the views of many Republicans, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) declared that if the House prosecutors were willing to narrow their witness list, "We ought to bend over backward to give them what they want."

    "All we're going to decide [today] is will be to depose witnesses, and after that the Senate will decide whether to hear them live or just take videotape," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). "I see no reason it can't be done by this weekend."

    From the beginning of the three-week trial, the question of whether to call witnesses or to rely on the voluminous House impeachment record and grand jury testimony as the Democrats favor has threatened to split the Senate along partisan lines. Nearly three weeks ago, senators essentially agreed to postpone that decision as a way of getting the trial launched on a bipartisan basis, but the moment of truth has now arrived with today's scheduled vote on whether to depose witnesses.

    The vote was still too close to call, and senators were still speaking last night of some kind of compromise to keep bipartisanship going. Short of an agreement, however, senators on both sides of the aisle predicted that several days of hard work by Lott and his allies appear to have solidified GOP sentiment that the managers should be allowed to call some witnesses to flesh out their perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

    A spokesman for Lott said yesterday that "there are enough open minds right now" to assure Senate approval of the House managers' request for three witnesses as well as their suggestion that the Senate invite Clinton to submit to a deposition. Daschle, the Democratic leader, predicted that the witnesses would be approved along virtually a party-line vote.

    Lott has had to work hard to keep his caucus united. Several Republicans, including Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.), Slade Gorton (Wash.) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.), have voiced some opposition to calling witnesses.

    Several other GOP senators also indicated misgivings about prolonging the unpopular trial, perhaps lifting the total of potential defectors into double digits. As the Democrats have pressed to block managers from calling any witnesses and argued that the trial's outcome was a foregone conclusion and should be ended without a final vote, Lott and other Republicans began meeting in private to search for an approach that would enable them to maintain control of the trial and avert widespread GOP defections.

    According to several Republicans who attended the sessions, Lott, far from attempting to impose a solution, encouraged extensive debate that gradually led to the final understanding.

    "Lott generally stated his own position and laid out the various options," recalled Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "It wasn't so much what Lott said, but a lot of other people in the caucus expressed very strong expressions of opinion and expressions of caution."

    "There [hasn't] been any arm-twisting whatever," Grassley added.

    To placate Republicans concerned about witnesses, the Senate leaders limited the managers to calling three. Also being considered are restrictions on the time the House managers and the White House lawyers would have to depose the witnesses.

    But such restrictions have made what was already a tall order -- persuading two-thirds of the Senate to convict Clinton -- perhaps even more difficult to achieve for the House prosecutors.

    "We have had to narrow our request down at the urgent request of well-meaning senators who don't want any witnesses, really," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

    Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of the managers, added that "if the search for the truth is somehow incompatible with [the Senate's] dignity then we're all probably in the wrong business."

    Another problem has been maintaining the civility that until now has characterized the three-week trial. Some Democrats warned that collapse of such bipartisanship might make it more difficult to pass an alternative censure resolution if the impeachment charges fail.

    Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) and others have floated bipartisan proposals that would allow Clinton to continue in office but would tar him with the charges contained in the two articles of impeachment. Democrats have been more supportive of a censure alternative than the Republicans, although some Republicans have indicated they might support a toughly worded reprimand if the Senate fails to convict the president.

    But some Democrats indicated yesterday there would be far less interest in bipartisan cooperation if the Republicans insist on attempting to prop up the House managers' case.

    "Without any likely prospect of any change in the story, they want to stop this trial in the middle and start discovery here," added Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). "It would be a terrible mistake for the country."

    Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) warned, "This will take weeks and probably months once you start going down this road."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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