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Lott's Hope for Bipartisanship Still Flickers

US Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott checks his watch before going into the Senate chambers Wednesday. (AFP)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Dan Morgan
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A17

    Even as the Senate's impeachment trial of President Clinton appeared to sink into a well of partisan rancor yesterday, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) accelerated his efforts to find a bipartisan agreement to close out the proceedings.

    Lott and Senate Democrats were trading ideas on his plan to depose three witnesses by Monday, consider calling live witnesses Tuesday, hear testimony if necessary and finish the trial as quickly as possible. Lott had suggested it might finish Feb. 6, but now concedes it's likely to go longer.

    At this point it appears Lott has a good chance to make a deal. Late yesterday, he reported "good progress that would lead to an expeditious conclusion" to the trial, and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) seconded him, saying he was "reasonably optimistic," and praising Lott for his "willingness to work on a bipartisan process."

    If nothing else, the continuing talks between the parties – even after two seemingly bitter partisan votes on dismissal of the case and deposition of witnesses – showed that almost nothing is forever in the U.S. Senate. The two parties can exude outrage one moment, than gracefully move on to the next negotiation with scarcely a partisan hiccup.

    Senators of both parties said the ongoing negotiations also highlight how committed Lott remains to ensuring that the Senate trial be seen as much more bipartisan than the impeachment proceedings in the House. While Lott has worked hard behind the scenes this week to find the GOP necessary votes to depose some witnesses – as House managers demanded – he has also been looking to satisfy Democrats' insistence that the trial end quickly.

    "These votes, while along partisan lines, should not in any way mislead the public to the effect that we are sitting rigid in our respective parties," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said. "There is significant crossover of thought."

    "The mood is not one of angry partisanship," agreed Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), while Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) added that the "conversations and the goodwill continue across party lines."

    The impeachment trial began three weeks ago with a burst of bipartisan bonhomie, as Lott and Daschle built a consensus on how to conduct the first phase – including opening statements from both sides and questions from senators – that ended with yesterday's votes.

    But immediately after the pact went into force, the goodwill began to fray, as the parties pursued conflicting goals. The Democrats, eager to forestall witnesses and not wanting to legitimize them, refused to discuss the details of how to depose them or how many to have until the Senate actually voted to call them.

    As majority leader, however, Lott wanted to be as prepared for witnesses – and preempt complaints from House "managers" and GOP conservatives that he was short-circuiting the trial. Even before the trial began, GOP leadership sources said, Lott's staff began studying issues that would need to be resolved in any endgame strategy: how long would each deposition last; where would they take place; who would be present; who would resolve objections.

    In the buildup to the original agreement, the two leaders had deputized Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Lieberman as a "gang of four" to build bipartisan consensus on future procedural issues. The GOP leadership sources said it had been Lott's hope to use the gang on negotiations over witnesses.

    Daschle, however, soon pulled the plug on that idea. When Lott wanted to send a delegation of senators to talk with the House prosecutors about how many witnesses they wanted, Daschle refused to participate, calling such contacts a breach of the bipartisan agreement. The Republicans visited the House anyway.

    Over the next two weeks, Lott made other overtures, but Daschle continued to disdain them. Lott's staff continued to work on a tentative plan for deposing witnesses, GOP leadership sources said, then shelved it, waiting until the moment ripened.

    The final partisan confrontation began Sunday, the sources said, when a number of GOP senators expressed misgivings about witnesses, raising the danger that the motion to depose them might fail.

    Rather than simply let the motion fend for itself, Lott apparently heeded Republicans, who noted that even though they themselves may not have wished to hear witnesses, they did not want "a bunch of Democrats," as one senator described it, to keep Republican senators from hearing evidence. The key was that the House managers had to keep the number of witnesses to a minimum.

    On Monday morning, leadership sources said, Lott sent Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to visit the prosecutors to let them know "in first-person terms," one source said, that the Senate had a limited appetite for witnesses. Lott telephoned Daschle to ask him if he wanted a Democrat to accompany the Specter-Kyl mission, but Daschle declined, the sources said.

    Specter and Kyl spoke with the prosecutors Monday, and then again Tuesday morning. At noon, prosecutors said they wanted to depose only three witnesses: ex-White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

    The Democrats were outraged, charging that the GOP had cut a deal with the prosecutors so they could keep their own caucus in line.

    Republicans were pleased. Moderate Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who had advocated witnesses for weeks even as most of his moderate colleagues had expressed doubts, said scaling down the list had given the managers "a terrific advantage" in getting the motion passed.

    An hour earlier, Chafee had stood up in a Republican caucus meeting to offer a six-point plan for witness deposition – the first time GOP senators had seen on paper an outline for the next phase of the trial.

    "Some other Senate staffers had been thinking along the same lines," said Chafee spokesman Nicholas Graham. "There was a harmonious convergence of thought." Chafee had lit the spark, but Lott was able to dust off his old staff work and add it to the mix. The outline of a plan for calling witnesses – that could command the necessary votes among Republicans – began to emerge.

    As the Republicans coalesced behind a witness plan, senators of both parties worked hard to see if they couldn't head off what seemed to be an inevitable partisan breach. A number of ideas were floated. Democrats would pull the dismissal motion if Republicans would pull the witness deposition motion.

    Or, Republicans would help Democrats somehow on witnesses if Democrats would agree to move the dismissal motion to some other spot in the process. Or, Democrats might be amenable to witness deposition if Republicans agreed that no live witnesses – only videotaped depositions – would be allowed on the floor.

    "These were all ad hoc discussions," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "We have all kinds of self-appointed negotiators. This is the biggest movable caucus I've ever seen."

    In the end, there simply wasn't enough time to close the deal yesterday. Finishing a deal "meant waiting another 24-48 hours," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). Republicans decided to go ahead and vote, take the partisan hit and move on.

    Democrats also shrugged. The Republicans would win on witness depositions, but the dismissal vote would demonstrate that there was nothing close to the 67 votes needed to convict and remove Clinton.

    On the way in to the trial to vote, Lott passed Daschle a sheet of paper. It was the Republican draft plan on how to get through the next, and perhaps final, phase. Daschle took it. He would call with his alternative, and the talks would begin. Bipartisanship was still flickering.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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