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Witness List Trimmed to 3; Clinton's Answers Sought

Monica Lewinsky Monica S. Lewinsky leaves a downtown Washington Hotel Tuesday on her way out of town. (AP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A1

    House Republican prosecutors proposed a dramatically scaled-back witness list yesterday asking to subpoena Monica S. Lewinsky and two advisers to President Clinton, while petitioning the Senate to invite the president himself to answer questions under oath.

    Bowing to pressure from Senate Republicans, the House "managers" requested depositions of only Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. But their concession came with a challenge as the prosecution sought voluntary testimony from Clinton because "his credibility is critical" in determining whether he should stay in office.

    They offered the proposal on the eve of today's crucial back-to-back votes by the Senate on whether to dismiss the impeachment case, as Democrats have asked, and whether to allow testimony, as demanded by the prosecutors. The dismissal motion appeared almost certain to fail along party lines and, by paring back their list, the managers solidified support among Republicans uneasy about a protracted trial and seemed likely to win their motion.

    But after a four-hour closed session last night, the second in as many days, senators in both parties emerged signaling that they were making a last effort at a bipartisan accommodation on witnesses that will continue before the 1 p.m. votes. The two parties were discussing a timetable to hold an up-or-down vote on the two articles of impeachment in about two weeks, premised on the idea that videotaping the depositions would avoid the need to bring witnesses to the floor to testify in person.

    "We're very interested in that," said Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "We're not there yet. We have no interest in stringing this thing out."

    The managers' tactical retreat came at some cost to their trial plans. To keep their list to a bare minimum, they jettisoned a series of witnesses they wanted to subpoena -- most prominently Betty Currie, the president's secretary, who played a key role in facilitating his sexual relationship with Lewinsky and hiding gifts to keep it from being revealed in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

    Allowing any witnesses would guarantee that the trial would continue until at least into February under the most optimistic scenarios and the White House warned ominously that, if the prosecutors' request is granted, it would seek the right to conduct "comprehensive discovery" that could take months.

    The White House also made clear that Clinton would refuse to testify voluntarily even if the Senate were to issue the invitation sought by the managers, just as he already has rebuffed written questions submitted to him this week by 10 Senate Republicans. "This falls into the category of a political play," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said of the managers' request.

    In trying again to find compromise last night, senators appeared to be searching for a bipartisan agreement much like the one they forged at the start of the trial, this time crafting one that would carry them all the way to a final judgment on Clinton without a partisan blowup.

    "It's pretty clear we're headed toward a partisan vote [today] and people are desperately trying to find a way to avoid it," said a participant who asked not to be identified.

    It remained uncertain whether such a deal might head off today's votes or come only later, with some senators suggesting the dismissal vote might be postponed as part of an agreement. "If we can find a way to get to a resolution that is fair to the parties, people are open to finding it," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "If we can't find that, then we have to proceed according to our beliefs."

    If last night's renewed talks do not produce a breakthrough, Democratic leaders all but acknowledged that they would lose both votes today in a chamber where they are outnumbered 55 to 45. "It sounds as if the lines may be drawn," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said at mid-day. Referring to a half-dozen Republicans who once appeared "soft" on calling witnesses, Daschle said, "I think those soft Republicans have turned hard."

    Republicans agreed. "The sentiment is that we need to let the House call witnesses," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said after a mid-morning GOP caucus. Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said the shrinking of the list was a "terrific advantage" to the prosecution cause.

    Lewinsky, for one, saw nothing terrific about it. After being forced by a weekend court order to return to Washington and debrief three House managers, she left town yesterday for an undisclosed location while waiting for a decision. "We've said before and we would repeat, we have no interest in having her testify," said her attorney, Plato Cacheris. Blumenthal declined to comment and Jordan's attorney did not return a call.

    Even if the Senate does approve witnesses, it would authorize only closed depositions, possibly starting Thursday; any decisions on bringing them to the floor to testify before the Senate would require separate votes after the depositions are complete.

    Senate Republicans were working out possible restrictions on the depositions to keep control over them as well. In addition to the bipartisan interest in videotaping them, a plan circulated by Chafee would limit depositions to four hours each, require that they be taken every day except Sunday without delay and designate a senator from each party to sit in as mediators.

    While talking to Democrats about witnesses, Senate Republicans were mulling among themselves another plan to find an acceptable end to the trial based on the presumption that they could not assemble the two-thirds vote required for conviction. Under this proposal, the Senate could pass a "finding of facts" separate from its vote on the articles of impeachment concluding that Clinton committed certain alleged acts without removing him from office.

    The idea, floated by Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), has piqued the interest of Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who designated a seven-member, all-Republican group headed by Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) to work out details.

    The managers, who once envisioned calling as many as 15 witnesses, presented their formal list on the Senate floor yesterday as they opened four hours of public debate with White House lawyers over the need for testimony. In addition to the "pitiful three," as lead prosecutor Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) put it, they also asked to introduce two affidavits and a telephone record.

    To assuage fears of a salacious spectacle, the managers promised the senators not to ask Lewinsky about the sexual details of her relationship with Clinton, even though that is key to the perjury allegation against Clinton. Instead, they would merely ask her to reaffirm her grand jury testimony on that subject and focus instead on the events related to the obstruction of justice charge.

    "Ms. Lewinsky is probably the most important witness left" other than the president, said Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.), who would handle her examination. "And wouldn't you at least like to see and hear from her on this? As triers of fact, wouldn't you want to observe the demeanor of Ms. Lewinsky and test her credibility?"

    Jordan would be called to testify about his effort to find Lewinsky a job on Clinton's behalf at the same time he found her an attorney to draft what turned out to be a false denial of her affair with Clinton for the Jones case. The managers want to use Blumenthal to show both how Clinton lied to aides who then went before a grand jury repeating his falsehoods and how he tried to plant malicious stories about Lewinsky by calling her a "stalker."

    Off the floor, managers said they dropped Currie because her account of Clinton coaching her with false statements was undisputed by the White House; the disagreement focused only on whether the president had reason to believe she could be a witness at the time they met.

    As for the conflicting accounts between Currie and Lewinsky over the hiding of presidential gifts subpoenaed in the Jones lawsuit, prosecutors prefer Lewinsky's account, which implicates Clinton, over Currie's, which does not.

    In addition to witnesses, the managers asked to introduce two affidavits and a record of a 56-minute telephone call between Clinton and Lewinsky on Dec. 6, the day the president learned she was on a witness list in the Jones case.

    One affidavit would come from Barry Ward, a law clerk who would state that, contrary to Clinton's later assertion to a grand jury, he appeared to be attentive during his Jones deposition when his attorney denied there was sex of any kind between the president and Lewinsky. Another would come from T. Wesley Holmes, a Jones lawyer who would describe subpoenaing Currie after that deposition, making her a potential witness when she spoke with Clinton, though he did not know it at the time.

    David E. Kendall, the president's private attorney, told the Senate that none of that should be approved because the evidence compiled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was sufficient and disputed managers' claims that the White House feared witnesses.

    "We are not at all afraid of what the witnesses would say," Kendall said. "Indeed, we know what they're going to say because it's all right there in the volumes before you."

    If witnesses are called, he warned, the White House would be forced to embark on its own lengthy evidence gathering. The Clinton team would want access to the thousands of pages submitted by Starr but not released by the House and he suggested he would want to interview all of the Jones lawyers to examine their links to Starr.

    While managers called that a scare tactic, Kendall said icily as he pointed at their table, "Let's be clear about one thing. Any delay in the process necessary for us to have fair discovery is on their heads."

    Indeed, Kendall exhibited deep disdain for the prosecution team and their process during House impeachment debate, when they did not call fact witnesses. He displayed one chart after another quoting various managers about why they did not need witnesses during the House proceedings because Starr's evidence was voluminous enough. Kendall was so scornful that when he started out one sentence by saying, "I don't want to be uncharitable," the entire Senate burst out laughing.

    Hyde found none of it charitable and bristled at what he called Kendall's "annoying" and "irritating" complaints. Defending the House process, he said witnesses were unnecessary for the body that accuses but required for a full-blown trial. "They have a positive allergy to fact witnesses," Hyde said. Recalling that the White House called only academics during House hearings, Hyde added, "You would get eye strain looking for a fact witness."

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Guy Gugliotta, Spencer S. Hsu, Eric Pianin and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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