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Bipartisan spirit fading in Senate; GOP, Democrats split on calling witnesses at impeachment trial


WASHINGTON -- Two days after the Senate struck an unexpected note of harmony with an agreement on how to conduct the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Republicans and Democrats disagreed anew yesterday over the one overriding question that threatens to cleave the two parties: whether to call witnesses.

With the Senate poised to hear opening arguments in the trial Thursday, Senate Republicans spanning the ideological spectrum spoke forcefully yesterday for the need to hear from witnesses who could clarify factual disputes in the case against Clinton.

"I have never seen a trial before where you had factual disputes where you didn't have witnesses where you could watch their demeanor on the stand, listen to them, judge one witness vs. another witness," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican. "That's basically our system of justice."

Sen. John H. Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island, echoed the sentiment of most of his colleagues, saying, "I do believe some witnesses will have to be called." Both Republicans made their comments on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But in a sign that partisan displays may have been merely delayed by Friday's agreement to postpone for two weeks a decision on summoning witnesses, Democrats took the opposite stance.

They argued that the existing record sufficiently lays out the case for the Senate to make a determination on Clinton's fitness to hold office.

"We have a body of evidence that is really phenomenal -- 60,000 pages, five volumes -- an amazing array of data that I think probably answers virtually every scintilla of question there would be about what happened and why it happened," said Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and the minority leader, on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "We know the facts."

House Republican managers, who will prosecute the case against Clinton, said yesterday that they would like to call six to 10 witnesses, among them Monica Lewinsky; Betty Currie, Clinton's personal secretary; Vernon Jordan Jr., the Washington lawyer who is Clinton's confidant; Sidney Blumenthal, a White House aide, and perhaps unidentified women who have claimed that Clinton made sexual advances toward them, including Kathleen Willey.

This week, the Senate begins in earnest the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years and only the second in the nation's history. It will plunge into the details of a scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives, along a near party-line vote, on charges that he committed perjury and obstructed justice.

After edging toward a partisan divide last week, all 100 senators emerged from an unusual closed-door caucus on Friday with an agreement on how to conduct the trial and to postpone the question of summoning witnesses until after the House impeachment managers and Clinton's lawyers have made their opening presentations. The agreement was passed unanimously on the floor of the Senate Friday evening.

But yesterday's statements by Senate Republicans and Democrats made clear that while the bipartisan agreement on Friday was a lesson in comity, the rest of the proceedings may not necessarily engender the same congeniality.

"I suggested that we are in a bipartisan mode for the opening kickoff," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Republican, on the ABC program "This Week." "Halftime is questionable. And if we go into overtime, all bets are off."

The House and the White House are allowed to present a series of motions in the early part of this week, with most of the activity occurring behind the scenes.

White House lawyers met all day yesterday planning their strategy for the week. By noon today, they expect to file an executive summary, similar to the one sent to the House Judiciary Committee in December, maintaining that charges of perjury and obstruction of justice are too thin to warrant impeachment.

On Thursday, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presiding, the House will begin presenting its case. The White House will follow. House prosecutors have indicated that they may need only eight to 10 session hours to make their case, and not the 24 session hours allocated to them by the Senate.

The White House, which was planning a double-barreled defense strategy, one barrel focusing on the facts, the other on the public, was also considering not using its full 24 hours.

After the two arguments, the Senate will likely face a crucial vote, perhaps on Jan. 25, on a White House motion to dismiss the case. The vote would require a simple majority, 51 votes, but with 45 Democrats and 55 Republicans in the Senate, few expect that it would pass.

"I think we want to hear this case out," said Chafee, "and I think I'd be surprised if a motion to dismiss at that early stage prevailed."

Breaux cautioned the White House to avoid any "scorched earth" tactics that may delay the case, and he urged that the president's lawyers not try to get the case dismissed at the outset of the trial.

"It would put a lot of pressure on people that are not ready to make that decision," Breaux said. "To make them vote on that proposition before we hear the opening arguments, I think would be a mistake on the part of the White House."

At the trial today

The Senate "court of impeachment" is not in session.

Noon: President Clinton's lawyers file in the Senate a formal reply to the House's two articles of impeachment.

5 p.m.: The president's lawyers and the House managers file any motions, seeking to shape the scope of the trial or to probe the other side's case. The only motions barred at this point are those to call witnesses or to offer any evidence not in the record compiled in the House.

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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