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Some senators look for 'exit strategy'; Lawmakers weary of process and wary of political damage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- A growing desire among Republican senators to quickly end the impeachment trial is raising the likelihood that witnesses will be avoided in favor of speeding up a vote on whether to convict or acquit President Clinton, several senators say.

Political fears and legal doubts, combined with weariness among senators serving long days as jurors, seem to be eroding Republican support for calling witnesses and for continuing the trial as long as House prosecutors feel they need.

"We want to bring this thing to a close as fast as we can and as fair as we can," said Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican. "We're pretty much running in neutral right now as far as witnesses are concerned."

Senators described themselves last night as awash in an array of bipartisan proposals for gracefully bringing the trial to a swift conclusion. One increasingly likely outcome is that the Senate would vote to take written depositions from witnesses but not to call them to testify to the Senate.

The apparent shift in sentiment from last week was prompted by several factors, senators said.

Clinton's lawyers succeeded in raising doubts about the strength of the House charges, just as Republicans are feeling trapped by a process that has almost no chance of producing a conviction and could hurt them politically for devoting so much time trying to remove a popular president.

"I think we are all looking for an exit strategy," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican who was among the first in his party to express skepticism about the strength of the House case.

With the conclusion yesterday of presentations by House prosecutors and by lawyers for Clinton, several Republican senators openly voiced doubts about whether witnesses were needed. And some said they detected ambivalence among many of their colleagues.

These Republican senators are resisting pressure from the House Republican prosecutors, who have argued that their case of perjury and obstruction of justice against Clinton can be fully presented only with testimony from live witnesses. Heading their list would be Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who had an illicit affair with Clinton that he tried to conceal.

Early this week, it appeared that a vote on whether to call witnesses would prevail, with Republicans voting as a bloc to support it and nearly all Democrats opposing witnesses. But after Clinton's lawyers made a forceful defense at the trial -- and the president delivered a spirited State of the Union address that boosted his already-high poll ratings -- some Republicans had second thoughts.

"I'm reconsidering whether we need witnesses at all," said Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who last week had declared witnesses "a foregone conclusion."

Stevens said he has grown discouraged with the trial because Democrats have made clear that they would never provide enough votes to form the two-thirds majority required to convict Clinton and remove him from office. Republicans hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said he was inclined to vote against witnesses unless House prosecutors managed to make "a compelling case" that a particular witness would "change the dynamic."

Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, said he had heard enough to "raise a reasonable doubt" about whether the prosecution had proved its case.

It remains unclear whether enough Republicans would defect to join the Democrats to produce the 51-vote majority needed to reject the prosecutors' request for witnesses -- or to dismiss the charges altogether.

But dissension and impatience within the Republican ranks could make it easier for Republican and Democratic leaders to fashion a smooth and speedy exit from a trial that carries risk for nearly all involved. The public has made clear in opinion polls that it wants the president to remain in office.

"They've lost their cohesion; they've starting picking at each other because they've been sitting in the Senate chamber day after day like caged animals," said a lobbyist with close ties to many Republican senators. "They want a graceful way out, and they just don't know how to get there."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has been trying since last week to persuade Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle to join him in a plan for handling witnesses. Such an agreement could sharply limit the number of witnesses and perhaps confine their participation to private interviews rather than public testimony in the Senate.

Daschle, who opposes calling witnesses, has refused so far to take part in negotiations. But other Democratic senators say they have been informally holding such talks with Republican colleagues.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is among a group of Democrats who are floating a proposal to quickly schedule a final vote on the two articles of impeachment, perhaps next week.

Such a vote would violate the unanimous agreement that now calls for the Senate to take time to debate and vote on whether to dismiss the case and then on whether to interview witnesses. Both votes are expected to fall along party lines, with the motion to dismiss narrowly losing and the motion to interview witnesses narrowly winning approval.

Kerry argues that those votes would shatter the bipartisan veneer of the trial that Republicans were determined to achieve and are eager to protect.

Unanimous consent in the Senate is required to alter the agreement, a change that several Republicans said they would oppose. But Kerry suggested that the Democrats could agree to vote against the motion to dismiss the case, and for some negotiated plan to interview a few witnesses, in return for a guaranteed final vote on the impeachment articles within the next weeks.

"Anything can happen," said Lott, who said he is willing to reopen negotiations if a majority of senators have had a change of heart. "But I don't see it at this point."

Despite some defections from the Republican ranks, a strong contingent remains in favor of supporting the House prosecutors by allowing them to call witnesses.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who is among the prosecutors' most ardent advocates, dismissed doubts about witnesses by his colleagues as "part of the normal ebb and flow of a trial."

Today and tomorrow, the senators will pose questions to lawyers for both sides. Craig said that will allow prosecutors to dispute the White House presentation and perhaps sway Senate opinion back in the other direction.

Lott signaled last night that he wants his Republican troops to stay together in support of the vote to depose witnesses.

"Maybe at the end" of deposing witnesses, senators will decide "there are not enough conflicts" to justify calling them in to testify, Lott said. "But for anyone to say at this point, 'I've heard enough. I'm ready to vote.' I think that would be a hard position."

Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, said yesterday that two Republican senators have hinted to him privately that they would vote to dismiss the case.

Sun staff writer Paul West contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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