WASHINGTON -- Acting at the behest of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, a federal judge ordered Monica Lewinsky yesterday to submit to a high-stakes interview before House impeachment prosecutors, enraging Senate Democrats and deepening the partisan divide at President Clinton's trial.
Hours later, the former White House intern flew into Dulles International Airport and was whisked off to a downtown hotel with camera crews in pursuit. After two weeks of often-dry trial deliberations, the order to Lewinsky re-introduced an element of melodrama, overshadowing the second day of questioning by senators.
Indeed, Democrats used that prospect as a partisan club in their push to wrap up the trial.
"I really worry about the Senate," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat. "This is turning into a three-ring circus."
U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson sent shock waves through the proceedings yesterday when she ordered Lewinsky to return to Washington from Los Angeles to submit to questioning -- either by House prosecutors themselves, or by Starr's staff, with prosecutors in attendance.
Lewinsky's lawyers last week turned down a House prosecutor's request for an interview, saying she would respond only to a Senate subpoena. The prosecutors then asked Starr to seek a court order to force the interview under terms of the immunity agreement that requires her cooperation with the independent counsel. Johnson ruled that Lewinsky could either submit to an interview or lose her immunity from prosecution.
As the Lewinsky drama was unfolding, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott moved to quell momentum toward a dismissal of the trial, declaring that senators would not be allowed to debate either a Democratic motion to dismiss or a Republican motion to depose witnesses before pivotal votes are taken on both matters -- possibly as soon as tomorrow.
"I don't believe the American people would be satisfied if we just stopped in the middle of the game," the Mississippi Republican declared. "It would be a mistake to vote to dismiss at this point."
After Democrats insisted that they were being "gagged," Lott appeared to soften his stance, saying that "many options" were being discussed.
Partisan divide deepens
As the partisan divide grew deeper, the prospects for a quick end to the Senate trial began to fade. The announcement by respected senior Democrat Robert C. Byrd, Friday that he would move to dismiss the charges tomorrow had buoyed Democratic hopes that the trial could be brought to a close as early as tomorrow. They had hoped Byrd's stature would coax enough Republicans to join them in a vote for dismissal.
Both sides began to take on the appearance of armed camps yesterday. While the 55 Senate Republicans do not have the two-thirds majority they would need to convict the president along party lines, they do have sufficient votes to keep the proceedings going -- first with depositions, then possibly with witnesses.
Senate Republicans appeared ready to stretch the trial with their search for evidence. Lott said yesterday that GOP leaders planned to draft written questions to submit to Clinton.
"There is nothing in the rules that provides for senators to put questions directly to the president and it won't happen," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said. "Been there, done that."
White House lawyer Gregory Craig told senators that Clinton's attorneys would answer the questions.
Back-room pressure by GOP leaders appeared to solidify Republican opposition to a motion to dismiss. Republicans who voiced strong misgivings about witnesses, such as Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, suddenly changed their minds, while one of Clinton's most staunch Democratic defenders asked Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the impeachment trial's presiding judge, to block Lewinsky's interview. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin insisted that Johnson's order violated the Constitution's mandate giving the Senate the sole power to conduct impeachment trial.
The jousting on the Senate floor took on a tone of biting partisanship.
Senate Democrats repeatedly used their questioning time to demand to know why House prosecutors had enlisted the independent counsel to interview a key witness before the Senate has voted to allow witnesses.
"It is mind-boggling. It is absolutely mind-boggling, this arrogant disregard of the United States Senate," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "The House Republican managers go to Republican prosecutor Kenneth Starr to act in total disregard of the United States Senate as though we're irrelevant. Well, you know what? We're not irrelevant."
House prosecutors were at turns defiant and apologetic, saying they did not believe they violated Senate rules but insisting they would go forward with their planned interview, probably today. Tennessee Rep. Ed Bryant characterized the impending interview as a "meeting" and a polite "conversation."
"We don't think that what we wanted to do had anything to do with the rules that you've passed," said Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, adding that prosecutors had no intention of allowing senators into the interview or providing a transcript of the conversation.
Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas revealed that he had tried to arrange an interview with presidential confidante Vernon Jordan. William Hundley, Jordan's lawyer, turned him down, according to Knight Ridder/Tribune news service.
In a letter to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the leader of the prosecution team, was blunt: "With all due respect to the Senate, the rules and constitutional principles of bicameralism do not require that the House obtain the permission of the Senate merely to conduct an interview of a potential witness."
White House lawyers were indignant. It is true, they conceded, that prosecutors often interview potential witnesses before submitting a formal witness list, but those pretrial witnesses are almost always cooperating with the prosecution.
"Can you imagine what that little conversation's going to look like held in the independent counsel's office, with people there who have the capacity to put Ms. Lewinsky in jail?" demanded White House Counsel Charles F. C. Ruff.
"Can we really say that it's just normal, just OK to have one side using the might and majesty of the independent counsel's office threatening a witness with violation of an immunity agreement if she doesn't agree to fly across the country and meet for this friendly little chat? I think not."
Some Republicans were vexed by the House prosecutors' actions, saying they violated at least the spirit of the deal reached to govern the trial.
"It's a circumvention of the agreement 100 senators made," said Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican. "We laid down a procedure but House managers found a technical way to get around it."
Most Senate Republicans jumped to the House prosecutors' defense, pointing to Johnson's ruling as proof that they were within their right to compel the interview.
"I just wonder about the fuss being made by White House counsel," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.
House prosecutors were more direct.
"The White House counselors do not want to talk about the facts. They do not want to talk about this case," Hutchinson said. "Just like in the House, they want to talk about the process."
Goal of interview
House prosecutors hope their interview with Lewinsky will provide the ammunition they need to force the calling of witnesses. If Lewinsky repeats the testimony she has given before Starr's grand jury, senators may decide a new round of testimony would be unnecessary. But if she could give new information, prosecutors could use it to prevail upon the Senate to allow them to seek more.
But the gambit may backfire. It has polarized the Senate, making it that much more unlikely that House prosecutors will persuade even a single Democrat to vote for conviction. By going outside the rules of the Senate, as Democrats contend, the prosecutors have risked ultimately alienating senior Republicans, whose allegiance to Senate prerogatives may outweigh their allegiance to party positions.
"The House managers don't fully realize the anger they have caused," Leahy said.
Hyde took to the Senate floor to all but declare that prosecutors did not care about such political considerations. Putting himself forward as a hero willing to risk his political career for an "issue of transcendent importance," Hyde concluded:
"Despite all the polls and all the hostile editorials, America is hungry for people who believe in something. You may disagree with us, but we believe in something."
Sun staff writers Paul West and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/24/99