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Calling witnesses is likely, GOP says; Votes a week away; president could be invited to testify


WASHINGTON -- Two days of House arguments for conviction of President Clinton have heightened the possibility that witnesses will be called to testify at his impeachment trial, according to Republican senators.

Senate votes on calling witnesses are still more than a week off, but more and more members of the Republican majority are saying they can't imagine a trial without live testimony.

Some appear to have been persuaded by the arguments of House prosecutors.

"As I go through this, I'm moving toward being in favor of calling witnesses," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican, who had earlier expressed doubts about whether witnesses are needed.

"It appears as if the argument for live witnesses is strengthening," added Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who has long favored a full-scale trial.

High on the Republican prosecutors' wish list is the president himself.

"Invite the president to come," Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida urged the Senate in concluding his trial presentation yesterday. "Judge for yourself [his] credibility."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is quietly discussing with his GOP colleagues how they will respond to a House request to invite the president to testify.

The White House has said repeatedly that Clinton has no intention of testifying at his trial on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called GOP suggestions that Clinton be invited "a non-issue."

But the appearance of other central characters in the drama of Clinton's efforts to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- including Lewinsky, presidential secretary Betty Currie and Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan -- appears increasingly likely as senators speak out on the issue.

The White House and Capitol Hill Democrats have steadfastly resisted calling witnesses, saying that the record created by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation is more than sufficient for the Senate.

However, many Republicans take the view that there are so many conflicts in the accounts provided by the various players that quizzing them is necessary.

They also noted that the White House is disputing much of the evidence being offered by the House and that witness testimony might be required to sort that out.

Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican and early proponent of witnesses, observed: "I think in the end we are going to have witnesses, and I think it's going to be a bipartisan vote."

So far, there is no sign of a bipartisan groundswell in favor of calling witnesses to examine the charges.

"I think most Democrats remain opposed to the idea," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Democrats tend to support the White House view that House prosecutors want to call witnesses in hopes of making the charges against Clinton seem more serious by highlighting their salacious nature.

"The House Republican managers are seeking to expand and extend this proceeding for one reason: They do not have a case based on the facts, on the law, on the Constitution or on the voluminous record, for overturning the election and removing the president of the United States," said Gregory B. Craig, one of Clinton's lawyers.

Democrats also contend that the House prosecutors want to embarrass Clinton by making a spectacle in the Senate of quizzing Lewinsky about her sexual encounters with the president.

"Any effort to put Monica Lewinsky in the well of the U.S. Senate, I'm going to have a lot of trouble with," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

Yet the Democrats are in a minority in the Senate -- there are 45 of them, compared with 55 Republicans -- so there is little likelihood they will prevail on what increasingly promises to be a nearly straight party-line vote.

"I think there's going to be a parting of the partisan ways on this question," said Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Already Democrats, like Schumer, are beginning to look ahead to somehow limiting the use of witnesses.

"If we do have witnesses, I think we have to ensure that it be done in a careful and measured way," Schumer said.

There appears to be ample room for compromise on the question of witnesses.

Under the bipartisan agreement the Senate struck last week, the witness question will be decided in a multi-step process.

Before they reach the witness issue, the senators will hear three days of statements from the president's lawyers next week, spend two more days questioning the House prosecutors and White House lawyers, and then vote on whether to dismiss the case.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the trial doesn't end at that point, the Senate will then vote on privately questioning, or deposing, potential witnesses.

After learning the content of the depositions, the Senate would decide which witnesses it wanted to hear from -- voting on each, one by one.

House prosecutors have compiled a list of a dozen or more potential witnesses. But one member of the team, George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, said he did not expect the prosecutors would be allowed to call all of them.

"I don't believe that the Senate will accept the total list that we submit," Gekas said.

Compromises could be struck on limiting the number of witnesses and the scope of their testimony. Some factual conflicts could be resolved with negotiated agreements.

House prosecutors are eager to call Clinton as a witness, but they have not yet decided to ask the Senate to extend the president an invitation.

It's not clear whether the Senate could compel the president to testify. The authority to do so is not spelled out in the Constitution, and there is no precedent for attempting it.

But senators in both parties have said they strongly resist any effort to compel his appearance.

An invitation could be extended, however.

"It's up to the president," DeWine said. "It's obvious his testimony would be helpful as one of the key players in these events.

"But I don't think anyone is going to compel his testimony."

Sun staff writers Paul West and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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