Witness question keeps quick exit out of Senate reach

Closed debate resolves little

list of possibles whittled down to three

Trial In Senate

January 26, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from both the White House and House prosecutors, senators seeking a quick end to President Clinton's impeachment trial appeared stalled last night by a high-stakes dispute over witnesses.

The senators emerged last night after 4 1/2 hours from a closed-door debate on a motion to dismiss the trial saying there were no negotiations. "It was pure speeches," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican.

It appeared that a bipartisan deal on an exit plan might not be possible until after the Senate votes tonight or tomorrow on whether to take the first step of allowing witnesses to be deposed.

If that vote passes, some accord might later be struck on limiting or barring the testimony of witnesses. No witness can be brought into the Senate to testify without a formal vote on each one.

"That's when the real vote comes," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who has been among those skeptical of the need for witnesses.

House prosecutors are expected to present to the Senate today a list of three potential witnesses to be deposed. A target date for ending the trial might be included in the vote on whether to approve the depositions.

"I think we're moving toward a good exit plan," Jeffords said.

If they fail to win Democratic support for a process to hear witnesses, Republicans, who hold a 55-45 majority, might be able to impose a plan of their own -- but without the bipartisan imprimatur they would prefer.

"Then, I think we get to a whole different phase of the trial," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "It could be collapsed to days, or it could be weeks."

Overwhelming majorities of senators in both parties are eager to bring a speedy, dignified conclusion to the trial, which is not only time-consuming and physically taxing but also headed for a nearly certain outcome. With Democrats united, the Senate cannot muster the two-thirds vote required to convict Clinton and remove him from office.

Even so, both parties have political imperatives to deal with in ending the trial. Most Republicans won't support the motion to dismiss the trial offered yesterday by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Many said they think their conservative constituents favor a formal vote on the two articles of impeachment -- and probably also some witness testimony, which is being strongly pushed by the House prosecutors.

"An impeachment trial is a search for truth, and it should not be trumped by a search for an exit strategy," Rep. Henry J. Hyde, leader of the House prosecutors, said in an impassioned appeal on the Senate floor.

For their part, Democrats say they can't agree to any deal that limits the options for the White House. Clinton's side does not want witnesses because they would prolong the trial and might bring some unpleasant surprises.

In explaining the difficulty of the process, Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, asked: "You ever try to herd kittens with a horse?"

Prospects for an exit plan had seemed brighter Sunday, when a half-dozen or so Republican senators expressed doubts on talk shows about the need for witnesses. But several attempts by both sides to produce a solution have so far gone nowhere.

Republican Senate leaders, who want to honor the House prosecutors' request for witness testimony to bolster their case against Clinton, reached out for a deal that would guarantee witnesses -- but also limit their number.

Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, suggested to Kennedy yesterday that if the Democrats permitted testimony from two unnamed witnesses, the Republicans would agree to bring the trial to a final vote on the articles of impeachment by a specific date.

"That was a non-starter," Kennedy said. "They're just beating a dead horse, trying to salvage a case that can't be salvaged."

Democrats do not want to accept witnesses until they absolutely have to because they are still hoping, Kennedy said, that the desire of some Republicans to end the process will produce enough votes to bar witnesses.

Democrats have meanwhile offered a proposal to end the trial this week with a vote on whether to convict or acquit Clinton on the two articles of impeachment.

The Democratic motion to dismiss the trial would have been dropped, in return for Republicans' dropping the option to call witnesses. House prosecutors would have been given a chance to make a final rebuttal in support of their case before the Senate began to consider its verdict.

But that proposal was "summarily rejected" by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, his spokesman said, because it denied any opportunity for witnesses.

Lott was talking up another plan, proposed by Republican Susan Collins of Maine, that would give the Senate a chance to vote on a "finding of facts" in addition to the articles of impeachment.

Such a finding could declare Clinton guilty of the charges of bribery and obstruction of justice, without convicting him and removing him from office.

Democrats were skeptical.

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