Senators' questions to lawyers to undergo screening by leaders

GOP has process lined up to avoid duplicate queries, but some Democrats balk

January 21, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As senators prepare for their first chance to actively participate in President Clinton's impeachment trial, their leaders are facing the delicate task of trying to gently script their role.

So far, Republican leaders are having some success. But on the Democratic side, some members are balking.

Beginning tomorrow, the senators will have up to 16 hours to pose questions about the case to the House prosecutors and to the lawyers defending the president. None of the questions can be posed directly by senators. Rather, they must be written and passed up to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who will ask the questions.

Though Rehnquist has some discretion, both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, want to screen and organize the questions themselves.

"We need to do this so we don't have 100 separate lines of questioning that are redundant, duplicative and going down their respective paths," said Sen. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, who urged Daschle to take an role in managing the queries.

"I don't want a situation where all 100 senators feel an obligation to submit a half-dozen questions so they can demonstrate to the press that they are engaged in the trial."

Lott, who has a passion for order and tidiness, got his Republican troops on board early. He named three senators to a screening committee several days ago; by yesterday afternoon, they had received more than 70 questions.

"It's not a matter of editing, or limiting anyone's ability to ask questions," said John Czwartacki, Lott's spokesman. "They are being culled to eliminate redundancy and put them in a logical order."

Daschle, who asked Democratic senators to submit their questions directly to him, isn't getting quite as much cooperation.

"I'm going to do him the courtesy of letting him see them," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said of his questions, which he is trimming from 30 or 40 to three. "But I think each of us reserves the right to also submit questions ourselves."

The question process is one of the many anomalies of the Senate impeachment trial. Jurors at regular trials are not permitted to ask questions of witnesses or attorneys -- though they sometimes pose queries to the judge during their deliberations.

But in this case, the senators are both jurors and judges.

"It will be the first time the members of the Senate will be able to speak at all on the issue," observed Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat. "But it will be somewhat diluted because it will be the chief justice asking the questions, so it will lose some of the emotional impact of the individual asking the question. I presume it will be rather neutral in tone."

The rules provide for Rehnquist to identify the questioner. But it's not clear how that will be done when several senators offer questions that are identical or similar. As with Senate bills, questions will potentially be offered with a list of co-sponsors or perhaps even anonymously.

That might be a good idea in some cases, Dodd said. "Sometimes by putting the name on it, you could dilute the value of the question," he said.

A Democratic leadership aide joked that senators might submit questions in the name of other senators to create mischief.

Many senators aren't sure what to expect from the questioning.

Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, is looking forward to it as a chance for the House prosecutors, who concluded their case last week, to offer a rebuttal to the White House presentation.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, mused about the difficulty for the attorneys to quickly answer questions that require some research. "I don't think they'll just be able to answer everything off the top of their heads," Kyl said.

Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, said he hoped the questions and answers might eliminate the need most Republican senators feel to call witnesses.

"It is an opportunity to ask questions about some of the discrepancies," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is coordinating the questions for Republicans, said he is still trying to work out the issue of how follow-up questions would be asked.

Senators could send those in notes up to Rehnquist from their seats on the floor, but they would probably channeled through Lott and Daschle.

"As long as we have time, everyone who wants the chance to ask a question will get it," a spokeswoman for Daschle said.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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