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Democrats reject idea of witnesses; Testimony will extend Clinton trial, shed no new light, senators say; 'This is not Perry Mason'; Republicans praise House prosecutors, see 'powerful case'


WASHINGTON -- As the White House prepared to launch a vigorous defense of President Clinton before the Senate this week, Democrats insisted yesterday that witnesses were not necessary and would only prolong the president's impeachment trial, to the dismay of the country.

With Clinton's lawyers hoping to deflate the case for removing the president made last week by the House managers, administration allies argued yesterday that the Republican call for witnesses such as Monica Lewinsky -- and the president himself -- was politically motivated and would shed little new light on the facts.

"Be real! This is not Perry Mason. This is not something where somebody suddenly comes running in the courtroom and says, 'Oh, my God! I did it!' " said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, speaking on ABC's "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts."

Former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, who has been working with the White House on the president's defense in the Senate, agreed, arguing that "in this case, there is more than an ample record."

"The notion that if these people are called in, after having testified under oath already, Monica Lewinsky on many occasions the notion that it will all then become clear is a total myth," Mitchell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Echoing the sentiment of White House aides, the former majority leader said he would discourage Clinton from testifying before the Senate as some Republicans have requested, calling the demand a "purely political" move to "make it look like he won't come."

The Senate trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow with the president's lawyers.

Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Clinton's deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, the president's counselors huddled at the White House to work on their presentation.

"We will make the case that the allegations are not supported by the facts or by the law, and they do not warrant nullifying the results of a national election and removing the president from office," White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said.

Clinton spent the day preparing for his State of the Union address, which is also scheduled for tomorrow, hours after the Senate trial ends for the day.

And during what one lawmaker called "halftime" in the impeachment trial, nearly one-fifth of the Senate -- 19 senators in all -- appeared on TV talk shows yesterday morning.

Republicans applauded the performance by the House prosecutors last week, saying the White House would have a difficult time knocking down the case that the president committed perjury and obstructed justice.

In their three days of arguments, said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the House managers "presented a powerful case" against the president. "The White House has a heavy burden of coming forward and rebutting some of the things that the House has presented," Hatch said on "Meet the Press." "I don't think you can just sweep away the House's case. I think a lot of people were very impressed."

But Democrats, while acknowledging the House put on a "decent" presentation, said the Republicans were still far from having the two-thirds majority in the Senate -- 67 votes -- needed to convict the president and remove him from office. At least 12 Democrats would have to join the 55 Republicans to get to a two-thirds majority.

Of 10 Democrats interviewed on the news programs, not one signaled a shift toward conviction. "We've sat for three days and haven't heard anything new," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota said on "Fox News Sunday." "I don't think we'll hear anything new when the White House makes a presentation."

Democrats said they did not believe Clinton should appear before the Senate and, in fact, "resented" the GOP suggestion that, if he has nothing to hide, he should voluntarily testify. Republicans acknowledged that there is no precedent for calling the subject of an impeachment trial to appear.

"We have had 15 impeachments by the House. We've had 15 trials, we've rendered 15 verdicts," said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas on ABC's "This Week." "We've never compelled the accused to testify. So the president's not going to be compelled to testify."

But Republicans insisted that the House presentation last week highlighted the need for witnesses such as Lewinsky, Clinton secretary Betty Currie and Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan because of conflicts over the facts.

Before the impeachment trial began, senators agreed to delay a decision on calling witnesses until both sides had presented their opening arguments.

"I think it will be pretty tough under these circumstances not to have witnesses," Hatch said yesterday.

But Democrats cautioned that calling witnesses could drag the trial out for months, with both sides taking depositions and with Democrats requesting witnesses of their own.

"If you go that route we may be talking May or June before we finish this trial," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said on "Meet the Press."

"I'd be very interested in maybe having Linda Tripp, maybe having a whole host of people and Ken Starr, all of whom might shed enormous light as to how it is we got here," added Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, speaking on CNN's "Late Edition," said the White House did not fear witnesses, but believed that a prolonged process was "not good for the country."

Looking ahead to this week's opening presentation by Clinton's lawyers, Republicans said his defenders should deal with the facts of the case rather than simply making the argument that the president's transgressions don't rise to the level of impeachable offenses.

"The White House is still viewing this as political," said Gramm. "The White House better get serious. If the best they can do is say 'So what?' they may be surprised by the vote in the Senate."

Some Republicans, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, have signaled that they will not attend Clinton's State of the Union address in the House chamber tomorrow night. But Republicans interviewed on talk shows yesterday said they planned to attend out of respect for the office of the presidency, if not the individual.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson, one of the House impeachment managers, said he wished Clinton would postpone the address, a move the president has resisted.

"It just seems very difficult and uncomfortable moving from the trial on Tuesday over to the State of the Union address," the Arkansas Republican said on "This Week."

Gramm said he would prefer that Clinton submit the speech in writing. "Quite frankly, I'd rather go to the dentist," Gramm said, when asked if he would attend. "But I intend to go. I'm going to stand up when the president comes in. I'm going to applaud. I'm going to be respectful."

At the trial

The Senate "court of impeachment" is in recess until 1 p.m. tomorrow.

House prosecutors have completed presentation of evidence, unless the Senate decides to allow witnesses.

President Clinton's lawyers will open his defense tomorrow. No briefs or other document filings are expected.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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