GOP maverick hints he might vote to dismiss charges; Vt.'s Jeffords questions severity of alleged crimes; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- Suggesting a crack in a united Republican front, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont hinted yesterday that he might vote to dismiss impeachment charges against President Clinton.

"A critical question we'll have that's coming up is whether we'll have a motion to dismiss," he volunteered to reporters, after outlining his concerns about the case against Clinton made by the House.

At the conclusion of the House prosecutors' three-day presentation before the Senate, Jeffords said he had not heard enough evidence to convince him that the charges against Clinton meet the high standard required to convict and remove a president from office.

"If you say lying about a non-crime can be converted into a high crime by the way he handled it, [that] sets a pretty low standard to me," Jeffords explained.

Perhaps the most independent and liberal of the Senate Republicans, Jeffords faces a re-election campaign next year in a state that supported Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

The two-term senator said his fundamental worry is the "bad precedent" that could be set by ousting a president for "the terrible things and the stupid things" Clinton did to protect himself from a lawsuit that may have been politically motivated.

"The things I'm concerned about deal with, first of all, how the Paula Jones case got started. Everyone's talking about justice to Paula Jones, but if you look at the facts, it's kind of an interesting question," he said.

Clinton defenders contend that the Jones sexual misconduct suit is part of a "right-wing conspiracy" against the popular Democratic president, and Jeffords said that claim was "a factor" in his doubts.

"Without Paula Jones' case, we wouldn't be here," Jeffords said.

Jeffords said he finds "troubling" the way Clinton made his staff and Cabinet unwitting accomplices in covering up his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and believes that may relate to Clinton's "fitness for office."

"But it's a question of the standards you are going to set, what you're going to ask another president to have to live up to," he added.

Because of Jeffords' maverick streak, his apparent departure from the otherwise solid GOP fold does not necessarily signal a trend.

It is very unlikely at this point that five other Republicans would join the 45 Democrats -- if they remain united -- to make up the 51 needed to dismiss the case.

Jeffords' discomfort with the charges raises even higher, though, the obstacle that House prosecutors face in winning the two-thirds vote required for conviction.

Even if all 55 Republicans held together, they would need 12 Democrats to vote with them.

So far, there's been no sign of Democratic defections.

"So many of my Democratic colleagues have made clear they have already made up their minds," said Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska.

"I feel like we're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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