House GOP prosecutors losing power

Judiciary Committee a `constitutional annoyance,' says Chairman Henry Hyde

January 23, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The 13 House Republican prosecutors in President Clinton's trial, who sit together day after day at a table on the Senate floor, are clearly losing ground in their fight to keep the proceedings going.

Isolated not only from public opinion but also from some of their fellow Republicans in the Senate, a House prosecution team that says it is utterly convinced of the certainty of its case alternated yesterday between expressions of confidence and pique.

Some of the prosecutors seemed to strain to argue that however unpleasant and seemingly futile the proceedings have been, the Constitution requires a full-scale trial and a formal vote on the impeachment articles.

"I know -- oh, do I know -- the annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body," Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told senators yesterday. "But we are a constitutional annoyance. I remind you of that fact."

As senators in both parties held closed-door meetings to sketch out end-game scenarios, the House prosecutors carried on their push for witnesses and took the bold step of asking the Senate to call Clinton to testify. The White House has insisted for weeks that the president would not testify at the trial.

The prosecutors' maneuver seemed merely background noise by day's end, as some Senate Republicans, like their Democratic colleagues, appeared eager to bring the trial to a swift conclusion, with or without witnesses.

"We've [already] got the president's appearance in front of the grand jury," Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, an influential Republican, said in dismissing the idea.

Stevens, earlier a proponent of allowing the House prosecutors to call witnesses, said yesterday that he was now unsure whether he would support calling for new testimony.

"If you open the door to witnesses, there's going to be such a flood of witnesses that there's going to be a lot of confusion," Stevens said.

Publicly, the House prosecutors were undaunted and said they hoped to call witnesses. The prosecutors explained away the seeming shift in momentum toward the Clinton defense team as part of the natural ebb and flow of any trial, and they declared yesterday's question-and-answer session useful for their cause.

"I think we have made substantial headway," Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia said last night. "We believe very strongly over on our side that we should continue. The Constitution demands it."

The prosecutors sought -- without apparent success -- to regain the initiative. At midday, before the resumption of the Senate trial, Hyde sent a letter encouraging Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle to request the president's testimony.

But with several Republican senators skeptical about the prosecution case -- and with no sign of any Democratic votes to convict -- the prospect of a Clinton appearance is a dim one at best.

"The House of Representatives would welcome the opportunity to participate in the fair examination of President Clinton should the Senate request his appearance at a deposition and subsequently at trial," Hyde's letter read.

It continued: "Because the President is the only individual with knowledge of almost every material fact relevant to the trial, the House believes that his testimony could greatly help to expeditiously and fairly bring this matter to a close."

Senators in both parties largely ignored the Hyde proposal. They instead focused on the statement a few hours later by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, a senior Democrat who carries great influence with members of both parties, that the charges of obstruction of justice and perjury should be dismissed.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a reliably conservative Republican voice, said yesterday that the main question was, "How do we conclude this, fairly, bipartisanly and speedily?"

Senators in both parties, Brownback said, are wrestling with "how we deal with a final vote, and how to deal with any witnesses -- if we have them."

Such talk of deals, and of a retreat by Republican senators on witnesses, drew bristling responses from the prosecutors, who said they were determined to press on with their call for witnesses to buttress their case.

"Either this is going to be a trial or it isn't," Rogan said. "This whole bargaining aspect among people who are supposed to be impartial arbiters of the fact strikes me as so bizarre that I'm still not used to it."

Asked whether he would accept the chance to rebut the presentation of Clinton's lawyers, in exchange for agreeing not to call witnesses -- one of many ideas floating among Democratic circles -- Rep. Ed Bryant, a prosecutor from Tennessee, replied: "I'm greedy. I want both."

Among the prosecutors, only Rep. George W. Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican, acknowledged some of the political realities off the Senate floor that are helping to shape the president's trial.

"Senate Democrats had said the votes are not there, that there's no way 67 votes can be convinced" to vote to convict Clinton, Gekas said. Conviction and removal from office requires a two-thirds majority, or 67 senators. Republicans hold a 55-45 edge.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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