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Debate to dismiss held in secret; Senate retreats to closed session to discuss Byrd's motion; 'End this ordeal'; Prosecutors plead for chance to prove president's 'crimes'


WASHINGTON -- The Senate huddled last night in a rare secret session to debate a motion to dismiss the impeachment charges against President Clinton and possibly to fashion a strategy to quickly wrap up a trial that is losing support even among some Republicans.

After about 4 1/2 hours, the senators emerged to say that the session had been consumed by speeches on the motion by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, to dismiss the case. There was no sign that any deal had been reached to end the trial quickly and gracefully.

House prosecutors had earlier argued indignantly against the Byrd motion, pleading for a chance to prove the president's "crimes," even as Clinton's lawyers urged senators to "end this ordeal" for the good of the nation.

The prosecution team is likely to defeat the dismissal motion when the Senate votes, possibly tonight or tomorrow. But House prosecutors are rapidly losing their effort to summon the required 67 Senate votes to convict the president. They might even be thwarted in their call for witnesses.

In yesterday's sometimes-meandering prosecution arguments against the dismissal motion, prosecutors likened the case against Clinton to Watergate, raised charges of nonconsensual "loving," and implored senators to protect not only the rule of law but "common decency."

"Electing somebody should not distance them from common decency and the rule of law," pleaded Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "Is that what you want to do in this case -- just to save this man, to ignore the facts, to have a different legal standard, to make excuses that are bleeding this country dry?"

Even the chief prosecutor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a man of storied eloquence, seemed at a loss as he called for "respect" for "the House, the other body, kind of blue-collar people," who are trying to "survive with our impeachment articles" in the Senate.

"I don't think this whole sad, sad drama will end -- we will never get it behind us -- until you vote up or down on the articles," Hyde concluded. "And when you do, however you vote, we'll all collect our papers, bow from the waist, thank you for your courtesy and leave, and 'go gently into the night.' "

In contrast, Nicole Seligman, one of Clinton's personal attorneys, methodically pressed for the trial's immediate end.

"The moment has arrived where the best interests of the nation, the wise prescription of the framers and the failure of the managers' proof all point to dismissal," she told the Senate. "You have listened. You have heard. The case cannot be made. It is time to end it."

The arguments on the Senate floor seemed almost like a sidelight, as the steam dribbled out of the impeachment trial. House and White House lawyers are scheduled today to debate the deposing of witnesses. Yesterday, prosecutors struggled to fashion a witness list that would be long enough to help make their case for conviction but short enough to avoid alienating 51 senators.

They appeared last night to have winnowed a list that once exceeded a dozen names down to three: Monica Lewinsky; Betty Currie, the president's secretary; and one other person, likely Vernon Jordan, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta or Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal.

But at least 50 senators have expressed doubt about the need for witnesses. That is a bad sign for Republicans, who hold a 55-45 edge over Democrats and need to produce a majority vote in favor of witnesses.

The House prosecutors seemed to set back their cause by pushing forward with their interview of Monica Lewinsky on Sunday. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist yesterday rejected Democratic contentions that the prosecutors had violated Senate prerogatives by using independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to persuade a federal judge to order Lewinsky to meet with the prosecutors.

But the political damage may have been done. The interview inflamed Democrats, brought the unpopular specter of Starr back into the impeachment saga and apparently yielded little or no new information. One of Lewinsky's lawyers, Plato Cacheris, said repeatedly that the former White House intern had nothing more to offer than the depositions and FBI interviews she has already given.

House prosecutors could not refute that contention. But they insisted yesterday that the Senate needed to hear from witnesses, even if the witnesses merely repeat testimony they have already given to Starr's federal grand jury.

'Doesn't jump off the page'

"The only way you can know how criminal this was is to hear the people who were there," Graham said after his Senate presentation, "because it doesn't jump off the page" of Starr's transcripts.

Both sides of the aisle struggled to find an accord that could bring the trial to a conclusion by the end of next week. Conservative Republican senators proposed calling just two witnesses and establishing a firm date for a final vote on the two articles of impeachment. Democrats said no.

Democrats -- and some Republicans -- proposed skipping votes on dismissal and witnesses altogether, moving instead directly to closing arguments and final votes. Republicans said no.

Hyde pleaded with senators not to "elevate convenience over constitutional process," saying a trial "should not be trumped by a search for an exit strategy."

But most senators did not appear to be listening. After arguments on dismissal ended, the Senate handily voted down a Democratic motion to open deliberations to the public, 57-43. Then the senators closed the chamber to begin debating not just the motion to dismiss but also a possible way out. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland was one of five Democrats who voted to keep the deliberations secret. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Maryland Democrat, voted to open the proceedings.

A secret session is extraordinary, almost always reserved for discussions of classified information and national security. The last closed-door Senate session came on April 24, 1997, when senators debated a chemical weapons treaty, said Donald Ritchie, an associate Senate historian.

A case in disarray

Meanwhile, the case against the president seemed in disarray. Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, teamed with Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, to push for separate votes to dismiss the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice -- an indication that at least the perjury charge might not garner even a simple Senate majority, much less the two-thirds majority needed for conviction. Collins and another Republican, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, have said they already have some doubt that Clinton is guilty of perjury.

Republicans from both the House and Senate zeroed in on the obstruction charge. Ten Republican senators fired off a letter to Clinton with 10 questions, demanding to know why he lied to his aides about his relationship with Lewinsky; why he asked Currie a series of pointed and misleading questions after his Jan. 17, 1998, deposition with Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers; why Clinton's political aide Dick Morris conducted a poll on American attitudes toward adultery, perjury and obstruction; and why Clinton suggested that Lewinsky file an affidavit in the Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit.

The White House says neither Clinton nor the White House lawyers plan to answer the questions. And the senators wrote that they had no desire to push the president.

Sensing the Senate's interest, House prosecutors also locked onto the obstruction charge, sending Rep. Asa Hutchinson to again lay out the case during dismissal arguments but forgoing a repetition of the case for grand jury perjury.

"I do not have time to cover all the facts," Hutchinson concluded, "but they are more than substantial. They are compelling, and they are convicting."

Seligman fired back on all fronts, declaring the impeachment articles unconstitutional, insubstantial, unproven and unimpeachable. Clinton has already been punished, she argued.

"He is being punished still -- as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a public figure," she said, adding that his legacy has been stained forever.

Besides, she argued, impeachment is not intended as a punishment, but rather to protect the nation against public figures who commit crimes against the state.

"If it is punishment the House managers seek, they are in the wrong place, in the wrong job at the wrong time," she said.

Seligman concluded: "We ask you to end this case now so that a sense of proportionality can be put back into a process that seems long ago to have lost all sense of proportionality. We also ask you to end the case now so those family members and others who did no wrong can be spared further public embarrassment.

"And we also ask you to end this case now so that the poisonous arrows of partisanship can be buried and the will of the people can be done."

At the trial today

Noon: Senate "court of impeachment" resumes with an uncertain schedule, likely to be settled shortly before the session.

A vote might be taken on the motion to dismiss the two articles of impeachment against President Clinton and, if that fails, on the motion to question potential witnesses under oath before deciding whether they are to testify. Pub Date: 1/26/99

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