Prosecutors frustrated in drive to call witnesses

House managers voice irritation as momentum for early end grows

January 26, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They are willing to wrap it up quickly. They are willing to whittle their once ambitious list of witnesses down to a precious few. Perhaps just three.

But the 13 House Republicans who are the prosecutors in President Clinton's impeachment trial are now finding that it may not matter much what concessions they are willing to make.

The prosecutors are beginning to acknowledge that, in spite of their surprise move to compel Monica Lewinsky to meet with them over the weekend, there may be a limit to their ability to pressure the Senate into calling witnesses.

"We're just trying to figure out who's trying this case," Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, as he darted to an informal meeting with several Senate Republicans.

Amid signs that senators in both parties are eager to bring the trial to an end, the House prosecutors may propose today a witness list that includes Monica Lewinsky, Betty Currie, and one of the following: Vernon Jordan; White House Chief of Staff John Podesta; or Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. That decision, however, depends on the ability of Senate leaders to broker a bipartisan deal for a plan to wrap up the trial.

"It's a bit frustrating, to be honest with you," Graham said. "To cut this trial short, to leave these criminal allegations unanswered, would do a lot of damage."

Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, said the managers "don't believe there is a trial without witnesses."

During yesterday's debate on the Senate floor over Sen. Robert C. Byrd's motion to dismiss the trial, the House prosecutors repeatedly used the occasion to press anew their contention that the Senate shouldn't vote on Clinton's guilt or innocence without hearing witnesses.

Giving voice to his irritation over the issue of witnesses, House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois complained the Senate was failing to show the House prosecutors enough respect.

"I sort of feel that we have fallen short in the respect side because we represent the House, the other body, kind of the blue-collar people," Hyde told senators. "This [dismissal] motion is a legal way of saying `So what?' to the charges."

The House prosecutors had expected opposition from Senate Democrats. One Democratic senator, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, said, "I don't know what planet the House Republican managers are living on," after they suggested Clinton should testify in the trial.

But the Republican managers are increasingly uncertain of support from their GOP brethren in the Senate. Several Republican senators have hinted that they would vote against the motion to call witnesses. That proposal will be debated on the Senate floor today , with a vote unlikely to occur until tomorrow..

Trial managers acknowledged that calling witnesses would extend the length of the trial. "I would as soon leave this city and go back home to Arkansas," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican prosecutor. "We have a responsibility. It's a step-by-step process that should not be ended" prematurely.

Other Republican prosecutors, sounding a similar theme to Hyde's, said Republican senators would be failing their constitutional duty if they allowed a final vote on the impeachment charges without hearing from at least a few prosecution witnesses. Clinton is expected to be acquitted of the charges, assuming that the articles of impeachment are voted on at the conclusion of the trial.

Yesterday's complaints by the prosecutors reflected a ratcheting up of the tension between Republicans from opposite sides of the Capitol.

The Senate is concerned that the trial would stretch on if witnesses were called. Said Wisconsin Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., "We have given them commitment after commitment that we are not going to do that."

Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, said, "Any reading of the trial process of the Senate necessarily means that the House managers will have the opportunity to call witnesses." The Constitution, he said, "requires a trial. It leaves no room to debate it."

Added Barr: "If your goal is to end it quickly, then you'll find a way to end it quickly. If your goal is to fulfill your constitutional responsibility, then there are ways to do that.

"To me," he said, "the goal ought to be to try the case."

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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