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In Senate, Disputes Erupt on Party Lines

Gregory Craig White House Counsel Gregory Craig makes a point Saturday on the Senate floor. (C-Span)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page A1

    After nine days of congratulating themselves for not behaving like the fractious House, members of the Senate split sharply into partisan camps yesterday, raising uncertainty over whether President Clinton's impeachment trial will end soon.

    At an early-morning caucus of Republican senators, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) rallied GOP senators against Democratic efforts to dismiss the perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against Clinton as early as Monday.

    Lott and other GOP leaders were eager to dampen support for a motion that will be offered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of the Senate's most influential members, for a quick end to the trial. He appeared determined yesterday to discourage speculation that the proceedings could be over before the week is out.

    "I do think it would be a big mistake if the Senate voted to dismiss," Lott told reporters after yesterday's session of the trial. "I don't believe that's going to happen. It would be a bobtail action of a constitutional process."

    But even as Lott tried to reassert control over the trial, Democrats exploded in anger when they learned that House Republican managers had joined forces with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to force former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky to submit to an interview that might produce additional evidence to help bolster the House case against the president.

    Senate Democrats, furious over the action that they said violated a bipartisan Senate agreement, fired off a letter to chief prosecutor Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) asking that the managers scrap the Lewinsky questioning, but they were quickly rebuffed. In a separate letter, Byrd called the move "a desperate attempt by the House managers to preempt the coming vote by the Senate on whether or not to depose witnesses."

    "It was an unbelievably desperate and stupid move by Starr and the House managers," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), echoing the views of most Democrats. "It's almost as though they have absolutely no understanding of the way the Senate thinks."

    Most Republicans either defended the House managers' action or dodged a response. But Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) agreed with Democrats that it violated the Senate's agreement on how the trial should proceed. "If they sit down with [Lewinsky] this weekend, it's circumvention of the agreement in that historic chamber," he said.

    The developing partisanship created new questions over where the trial was headed and whether the Senate can reach consensus as it moves from its opening stages to a round of crucial procedural motions this week.

    With Republicans controlling the Senate by a margin of 55 to 45, the broad-based Republican spurning of Byrd's proposal signaled that it would almost certainly fail. But the outlook was murky for a second vote, also scheduled for next week, on the issue of whether to allow the deposition of witnesses.

    The Democrats appear almost uniformly opposed to any additional testimony, arguing that there is already adequate information in the record, while most Republicans are highly sympathetic to the House managers' contention that they need to call witnesses to flesh out their case. On the other hand, many Republicans are also anxious to end the trial soon, and they are seeking a way to do that while not appearing insensitive to the managers' demand for a full trial.

    Seizing on an offer made earlier in the day by Gregory B. Craig, a member of the Clinton defense team, Lott said Senate Republicans would submit questions to the president, probably Monday, to help clarify his earlier testimony. "It was suggested the president would respond to our written questions, so we will take advantage of that option," he said. "We'd like to see what the president has to say about some of the inconsistencies in the testimony."

    Some senators suggested that such interrogatories, if used to clarify most of the disputed factual points in the trial, might reduce the need for deposition of witnesses or testimony by them before the Senate, which many lawmakers fear could prolong the trial for weeks.

    "This is a door to shorten the proceedings without inconveniencing anyone," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). He said the Senate should await receipt of answers to the questions before voting on deposing witnesses, which could come early next week.

    The White House, however, refused to have the president answer any questions directly. What Craig meant, aides said, was that Clinton's lawyers would respond to follow-up questions. "The president is not going to be answering written questions," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "The president has testified before the grand jury."

    Another problem arose yesterday as Lott sought an alternative for speeding the trial without acquiescing to the Democrats' more drastic proposal for dismissal.

    What he proposed was to deny Republican and Democratic senators a chance to discuss among themselves either the dismissal motion or the motion to depose witnesses before they vote on them. Current rules allow such a closed-door session only if a majority of the Senate votes for it; otherwise there would be no deliberations before a vote.

    Lott spokesman John Czwartacki told reporters yesterday that the majority leader felt that the deliberations would be unnecessary because the votes would be on procedural matters and the arguments on both sides are known to all senators.

    But Democrats were livid at the idea of Lott trying to block debate in a body that loves to talk. Some suggested that the Republicans were worried about possible defections and did not want to participate in a debate with the Democrats that might expose those divisions.

    "To gag senators on an important matter like this . . . is mind-boggling," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-N.D.)

    "We debate water projects," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). "Shouldn't we debate impeachment?"

    But later in the day, Lott told Daschle that he would put off a decision until Monday.

    From the start, the Senate had resolved to be more bipartisan and civil than the House, and it consummated that understanding in an agreement reached two weeks ago in the Old Senate Chamber.

    But the agreement on how to proceed with the opening phases of the trial was reached only because the two parties put off a decision on whether to call witnesses. As the need to face that choice neared and pressure mounted for a speedy end to the trial, partisan tensions rose close to the surface, and yesterday they broke through.

    Several Republicans suggested that Byrd's announcement Friday that he would ask the Senate to dismiss the case early this week was largely responsible for the overnight surge in partisan tensions.

    Even though Byrd's move may not have been intended that way, "it was initiated in a way that it seemed like a partisan maneuver. . . . It had that impact on how members looked at it," said Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.). Fueling the suspicions, he said, was the fact that Byrd acted without consulting Republicans and drew cheers from Democrats and attention from the news media.

    Freshman Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) agreed. "I think Senator Byrd's revelation . . . is probably what set this thing off," he said. Looking to the coming week, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) noted that all 15 impeachment trials have concluded with a vote on the articles themselves and said: "We're going to defeat the Byrd [motion] because it would set a horrible constitutional precedent."

    But Gramm, who helped draft the procedural agreement that enabled the Senate to get this far, also said that having a dismissal vote is anticipated by the agreement and proper under it. "We've got to stay with it and we will," he said.

    Following up on Byrd's proposal to dismiss the case, Breaux suggested that it might be broadened to include "some recognition of wrongdoing by the president," possibly making it more palatable to trial-weary Republicans and raising the comfort level for nervous Democrats.

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating (R), chairman of the Republican Governors Association, urged Republicans in Congress to abandon the idea of calling witnesses and bring the articles of impeachment to a quick vote. Witnesses, he said, are not likely to help resolve existing conflicts in testimony.

    "The facts are in," Keating said. "You might as well just resolve it with a vote. Prolonging it would not accomplish anything."

    Staff writers Dan Morgan, Spencer Hsu and Dan Balz and staff researchers Nathan Abse and Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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