Harkin once again a champion of the president; Iowa Democrat maneuvers to block order that could lead to Lewinsky testimony; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- In one of the stranger episodes of the impeachment trial, Sen. Tom Harkin raced through the hallways of the Capitol last evening in hot pursuit of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"I didn't catch him," the 59-year-old Democrat reported. "The guy's fast."

The Iowa Democrat, an unflinching populist and full-throated Clinton defender, was trying to hand-deliver a letter to Rehnquist immediately after the Senate adjourned.

But the justice ducked into his limousine and was driven away before Harkin could reach him.

The letter, later delivered to the justice through his office, asks Rehnquist to issue an emergency order, as presiding officer of the impeachment trial, that would prevent House Republican prosecutors from questioning former intern Monica Lewinsky.

Harkin contends that a federal district judge overstepped her bounds yesterday when she ordered Lewinsky to meet with House prosecutors.

To bolster his argument, the senator cites a Supreme Court ruling -- written by Rehnquist -- that bars federal courts from becoming involved in impeachment proceedings.

Harkin tried unsuccessfully to block adjournment of the trial yesterday so that he could make his point before the full Senate.

But even fellow Democrats, weary after another grueling week of the trial, appeared to have little patience with Harkin's effort to extend it. His motion was quickly rejected on a voice vote.

A tactical error

"I did make a terrible tactical error," the senator said later, explaining that he should not have waited until the last second to offer his motion. But he said he had been forced to scramble throughout the day to pull together the necessary legal arguments.

Among those helping him was Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, who had testified on behalf of the White House at the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings.

Ackerman had advanced the novel argument -- initially embraced by Clinton but later abandoned -- that Clinton's impeachment was unconstitutional because it was carried out by a lame-duck House.

In a telephone interview last night, Ackerman refused to say exactly how he became involved in the Harkin effort.

Harkin lost to Clinton in the race for the 1992 Democratic nomination. But ever since, the senator has been an enthusiastic champion of Clinton and of such initiatives as the president's ill-fated health care overhaul plan.

His wife, Ruth R. Harkin, now a lobbyist with United Technologies Corp., was appointed by Clinton as head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp.

In September, Harkin persuaded James Carville, the president's loudest defender against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, to be the draw at an event for the senator in Iowa. Interviewed not long afterward by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Harkin dismissed the seriousness of the accusations against the president.

"The guy didn't steal anything," he told the paper. "Where are the dead bodies?"

"There is no victim here," Harkin added. "Monica Lewinsky clearly knew exactly what she was doing. Did that excuse Bill Clinton? No. But she knew exactly what she was after."

Defending Senate authority

Last night, flanked by another ardent Clinton supporter, Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, Harkin explained to reporters that he was trying to defend the Senate's sole power, under the Constitution, to try impeachments. If the judge's order to Lewinsky goes unchallenged, he said, it could lead in the future to a weakening of the Senate's authority.

The Iowa Democrat is best known as the author of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was inspired by his brother Frank, who is deaf. First elected to the House of Representatives in the post-Watergate election of 1974, he has been a member of the Senate since 1985.

His appeal to Rehnquist was given little chance of stopping the questioning of Lewinsky. But Harkin, a graduate of Catholic University law school, has already established one precedent in the annals of presidential impeachment.

Last week, he won a ruling on a largely symbolic point.

Rehnquist upheld Harkin's position when he contended that senators have a larger role than mere jurors in an impeachment trial, and therefore should not be addressed as jurors even though their ultimate purpose is to vote on Clinton's guilt or innocence.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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