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Perjury Charge Is Faltering in Senate

Reporter Gebe Martinez, AP Reporter Gebe Martinez sits in the Senate Press Gallery, taking notes while listening to Monica Lewinsky on videotape at the Senate impeachment trial Saturday. (AP)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page A1

    As they launched a final effort yesterday to revive their losing case, House GOP prosecutors in President Clinton's impeachment trial faced an added indignity: Large numbers of senators from their own party appear unwilling to support a charge that Clinton lied about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    Some GOP senators say that no more than 40 of the Senate's 55 Republicans may vote for the first of the two impeachment articles, charging perjury. They believe the House "managers" have made a much stronger case that Clinton obstructed justice by covering up his affair with the former White House intern, and expressed far greater willingness to vote for the second charge.

    But at least one, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a conservative who has frequently voiced doubt about the managers' case, said: "I don't know if either one has measured up to the burden the House has to meet for conviction."

    Regardless of GOP sentiments, however, Democrats remain almost uniformly dismissive of the impeachment, and senators expect them to maintain a united front in voting against both articles, ensuring that Clinton will easily escape the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

    The House managers "were taking only those things that could support their case and holding them up in isolation and saying, 'Look at this,'" said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), the Democrats' deputy floor leader. "They just started out with a pretty weak case and didn't do anything to enhance it along the way."

    With an assured final outcome expected later this week, some Republican senators were taking a greater interest in a post-trial censure of the president as their best means of expressing distress with his behavior.

    In interviews yesterday and Friday with more than a dozen GOP senators, The Post found a broad range of views on subjects from the House managers' performance to the effectiveness of last week's videotaped testimony. Although those interviewed would not say categorically how they intend to vote, their comments indicated generally strong support for the article alleging obstruction of justice and diminished enthusiasm for the perjury article.

    "I sense, as many people do, that there will be more senators voting to convict on obstruction than on perjury," said Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

    "You go through every facet of it and I think [obstruction of justice] is the stronger case," added Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.).

    The senators gave White House lawyers strong praise for their "legalistic" ability to knock down the perjury charge, but gave the House managers equally strong reviews for weaving a compelling narrative to support their obstruction of justice allegation.

    "One of the things I learned from this trial, contrary to a lay person's notion, is that perjury and lying aren't the same thing," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a non-lawyer. But she added: "The managers did a very skillful job of raising solid concerns about whether the president obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses."

    And Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said that while Clinton "went right up to the line on perjury and didn't cross over it," it was the president's "cool calculation" in avoiding perjury that "I think lends credibility and weight" to the prosecution's contention that he connived to obstruct justice.

    Still, despite the changing strength of the two articles in senators' minds, nothing in the trial has galvanized the Republicans' desire to bring Clinton down. Instead, the past weeks of dueling presentations and witness depositions appear, at most, to have prompted nuanced adjustments to previously held views.

    Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said that although he found several "very disconcerting" statements in the deposition testimony, such as White House aide Sidney Blumenthal's "use of the term 'liar' or 'lied'" in his discussion of Clinton's behavior, "my guess is it's not going to change any votes."

    And although "most everybody agrees, to some degree, there's been some lying, there's been some obstruction of justice," said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), "you have different views, I guess, as to what you do about it."

    Coming out of the House, the impeachment article alleging grand jury perjury, which had passed by a 228 to 206 vote, looked much stronger than the obstruction of justice article, which squeezed by 221 to 212. But Senate Democrats, and some Republicans, were already soured on the entire House process, which Dorgan described as "a partisan, pitched battle."

    In the view of several GOP senators, the managers helped their cause in the trial's early days. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was particularly disturbed upon hearing of the extraordinary efforts of Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and others to find Lewinsky a job.

    It "was constantly hammered home to me," Grassley said. "There's something about this whole process that bothers me. . . . It doesn't fit Midwest common sense."

    The following week, however, the trial slipped back into stalemate as the White House team offered a full-fledged defense on the facts, something they had not done in the House. Several senators said that the managers "citizen-lawyers," in Hagel's words were at a distinct disadvantage compared with the president's lawyers.

    "I felt the House managers have been professional, hard-working and high-minded in their approach to the articles of impeachment," said Shelby. "But they are not in the everyday practice of law. On the other hand, the White House counsels, they're some of the best lawyers in America."

    Some Republicans said they were particularly impressed with White House attorney David E. Kendall's point-by-point challenge of the facts laid out by the managers and with Charles F.C. Ruff's convincing argument that, even if the president had lied, it didn't amount to perjury under the law.

    "If you look at it in technical terms, the president perjured himself before the grand jury I have no question about that," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "But [then] you add the question of materiality: Did it affect anything? In basketball lingo, 'no harm, no foul.'"

    A number of GOP senators had been looking to last week's depositions for new evidence that might tip the balance in one direction or the other. Some found it.

    "When this first started, I couldn't imagine why it was important to watch Monica Lewinsky," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). "But after the tape, I was convinced that seeing her, knowing her mannerisms, enabled me to know her in a way I never imagined."

    Instead of the femme fatale of "news clips and news bites," Cochran said, "I found her more vulnerable, youthful and very young." He supported the managers' failed efforts to bring her to the Senate floor because "I was surprised at how persuasive she was."

    "I think compelling evidence has been presented on both charges," he added.

    But others were frustrated. Frist said that while the videotapes "far surpassed just reading hard, cold depositions," he wanted to make comparisons with witnesses who weren't called. He saw Lewinsky tell the story of the returned gifts, but only read a transcript of Clinton secretary Betty Currie's account. "I can't look into her eyes," Frist said.

    As it became increasingly clear that the votes are not there for conviction, some Republicans began, in many cases reluctantly, to consider some kind of sternly worded resolution censuring Clinton for his conduct in the Lewinsky matter. Cochran said he is willing to listen, but is inclined against censure as "just a way for Democrats to get off the hook" for voting to acquit.

    Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, "I'll probably vote for it, but it's a cover-your-tail kind of thing." Wyoming's Thomas said he might vote for it, if it's worded "sufficiently tough," but not if it's "just a pablum, bad-boy kind of thing."

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he is opposed to "kiss-your-sister language," but agreed that the need for censure may turn out to be bipartisan. "By and large, it's better not to do it," McConnell said. "But this is an unusual event, and leaving it with just acquittal does leave you with an empty feeling that something needs to be said."

    Staff writer Edward Walsh contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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