Trial nears final phase

House prosecutors appeal to Senate to rise above party

Next vote on open debate

Clinton counsel says conviction would rip constitutional fabric

February 09, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The House Republican prosecutors and White House lawyers turned the impeachment trial over to the Senate jury yesterday, after prosecutors implored senators to rise above their political interests, ignore White House "spin" and remove President Clinton from office.

But Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, warned that a conviction of the president would rip a hole in the constitutional fabric that has clothed American society and will clothe future generations for "millennia to come."

"We cannot leave even the smallest flaw in that fabric," Ruff said, "for if we do, one day someone will come along and pull a thread, and the flaw will grow and soon the entire cloth will begin to unravel."

After 5 1/2 hours of often repetitive closing arguments from the prosecutors and the White House, senators were left to deliberate the fate of the president, with the only real suspense being how far the prosecutors will fall short in seeking 67 votes for conviction on either of two articles of impeachment.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the lead House prosecutor, dashed off a letter to Senate leaders, asking them to call three more witnesses to testify to whether Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, lied under oath last week. In his testimony to the prosecutors, Blumenthal denied giving journalists details from conversations he had had with Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. But two journalists have submitted sworn affidavits that Blumenthal told them Lewinsky was a "stalker," a term Clinton had used in those private conversations.

Senators are showing little appetite for prolonging the trial "another two minutes," as a Republican leadership aide put it. Even a bipartisan effort to censure Clinton after his expected acquittal appears to be faltering in the face of conservative Republican opposition and a rush toward closure this week.

The Senate will vote today on whether its final deliberations should be held in public. It appears unlikely that a motion to change the Senate rules to open up the deliberations will garner the necessary 67 votes for passage. A final vote to convict or acquit Clinton, for perjury and obstruction of justice arising from the Lewinsky scandal, will come by Friday, and perhaps as early as Thursday.

"We are blessedly coming to the end of this melancholy procedure," Hyde, of Illinois, acknowledged as he began the last of 13 closing statements delivered by each member of the prosecution team.

The prosecutors concluded yesterday with pleas that were at times passionate, at times weary, at times bordering on self-pity and at times seething with frustration and anger. Hyde called the impeachment saga a battle in the nation's "culture war." Another prosecutor, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, his voice dripping with indignation, spoke of a nation in "hopeless decline." Another, Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, said it appeared to him "the fix was in."

"I wonder if after this culture war is over that we're engaged in, if an America will survive that's worth fighting to defend," Hyde said. "People won't risk their lives for the U.N. or over the Dow Jones averages. But I wonder in future generations whether there'll be enough vitality left in duty, honor and country to excite our children and grandchildren to defend America."

The prosecutors recognize that they cannot produce the two-thirds Senate majority needed to remove a president for the first time. They have lowered their sights on obtaining a 51-vote majority, the threshold that Hyde said would legitimize the House's vote in December to impeach Clinton. Many Republicans acknowledge that that simple majority could be in jeopardy, though Senate Republicans hold a 55-45 edge over Democrats.

Since last week, Republican senators have openly raised the prospect of at least a half-dozen Republicans joining all 45 Democrats to vote against a conviction for perjury. Yesterday, some began questioning whether the obstruction of justice charge, which had been considered stronger, can garner a simple majority of senators, either.

The obstruction of justice charge "is like this garbage can that picks up so much of the garbage in this case," said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who had formerly indicated he would probably vote for the obstruction charge.

While a parade of House prosecutors used nearly all their allotted three hours, just one of the president's lawyers, Ruff, spoke yesterday. Consuming just over half his given time, the White House counsel coolly and methodically disputed each of the charges, which he dismissed as "moving targets and empty pots."

Nearly a month ago, when he opened the president's defense, Ruff had called the charges empty vessels. But he said yesterday that that characterization struck him as overly flattering, since a vessel might have "the capacity to float."

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