Witness wish list pared down to 3

Lewinsky, Jordan, Blumenthal are key, prosecutors say

More secret deliberations

Senate likely to vote today on witnesses, motion for dismissal

Trial In The Senate

January 27, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the calling of trial witnesses increasingly likely, House prosecutors pleaded yesterday with the Senate to question what one of them called just a "pitiful three" witnesses to help prove their case that President Clinton should be removed from office.

The prosecution's pared-down list included Monica Lewinsky, Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan and senior White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, as well as a last-ditch invitation to the president to testify at his own impeachment trial.

The prosecution list is likely to herald a shift in the 3-week-old impeachment trial, as the scripted opening act comes to a close and a new, more unpredictable phase begins.

The Senate will usher in that new stage today, when it is expected to approve the calling of witnesses and to defeat a Democratic motion to dismiss the charges against the president.

"The story needs to be told," Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, one of the House prosecutors, told senators. "The truth should be determined. Justice should be accomplished, not through lawyers up here talking, but through witnesses."

For the second straight night, senators easily defeated a Democratic motion to open deliberations to the public, then huddled in a secret session to hash out where the trial will go from here.

Capturing a growing sense of frustration, another prosecutor, Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee, pleaded for patience and quoted Thomas Paine: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

House prosecutors insisted that all three witnesses could be deposed and questioned under oath in the Senate by the beginning of next week.

In reality, the witness request could delay the trial's conclusion for days, if not weeks. Senate Republicans are trying to impose a Monday deadline for the completion of depositions.

But once the depositions conclude, the Senate will have to open debate all over again -- this time to let prosecutors and White House lawyers argue the merits of bringing the deposed witnesses to the Senate to testify in person.

What's more, White House lawyers warned yesterday that they would request time to gather still-secret evidence from the House Judiciary Committee and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr before possibly calling witnesses of their own.

"Given what is at stake, I think fundamental fairness requires fair discovery," David E. Kendall, the president's private lawyer, told the Senate.

"We will be expeditious, but in the event the genie is out of the bottle, we need time. We need access to defend the president in the way any client ought to be defended."

Clinton resists questioning

One request that will surely be rejected is be a deposition from Clinton himself. He has shown no willingness to submit to questioning, and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle dismissed the House request for a presidential interview as "a red herring."

A protracted trial could exact a political cost, especially for Republicans. Republican operatives have warned that the longer the trial drags out, the higher the public relations cost to their party.

Indeed, a poll released yesterday found that 53 percent of Americans oppose the calling of witnesses in the trial. The poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, also found that 63 percent of Americans do not believe Clinton should be removed from office, and 88 percent think the trial has offered little new or interesting information.

But Senate Republican leaders were determined yesterday to give House prosecutors a chance to present their case, declaring the White House threat to prolong the trial a bluff. And they may have swayed Republicans who have expressed serious doubt about the need or wisdom to call witnesses.

Declaring his confidence that the Senate would reject the motion to dismiss the charges today and would approve the motion for witnesses, Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, predicted: "Tomorrow will be a red-letter day for the Constitution."

Change of heart

On Monday, Daschle thought that enough anxious Republicans would join Democrats to defeat witnesses. Yesterday, he conceded, "I think those soft Republicans have turned hard."

But House prosecutors were hardly exuberant. Only weeks ago, they had hoped to call up to 15 witnesses to bolster their flagging case. But with the help of Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, the prosecutors reluctantly whittled that wish list down to a carefully calibrated three.

The shorter list was intended to press the case for obstruction of justice without alienating moderate Republicans.

"We have narrowed it down to three -- a pitiful three," the chief prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, told the Senate.

In a surprise retreat, the prosecutors decided not to call one of the key players in the scandal: Betty Currie, Clinton's secretary.

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