WASHINGTON -- The White House, which opposes witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Clinton, suggested again yesterday that it would seek testimony from numerous individuals if the Senate votes to hear new testimony.
Warning that a vote for witnesses would drag out the Senate trial for months, a White House official said Clinton's lawyers would have to embark on a "great deal of discovery," or evidence-gathering, and take "many depositions" if Republicans insist on calling witnesses.
The proposal for witnesses, by the 13 House prosecutors, is to be debated in six hours of arguments on the Senate floor today, with a vote expected either late in the day or tomorrow.
If the Republican-led Senate votes in favor of witnesses, "They will be responsible for injecting substantial delays" into the impeachment process, a senior White House official warned. "We would prefer to wrap this up promptly."
The official said the White House would not submit its witness list until after it finds out who is on the House prosecutors' list and after it has had an extended period of time to gather evidence.
Joe Lockhart, the president's spokesman, said Clinton's legal team had not yet contacted any potential witnesses and would not do so until after the Senate vote on witnesses.
Democrats have hinted that Clinton's defenders might want to question Linda R. Tripp and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- both unpopular in the polls -- to explore the genesis of the Lewinsky scandal.
Some of those witnesses the Republican House prosecutors want to question have corroborated Clinton's assertion that he did not obstruct justice or lie under oath.
Still, the White House opposes calling such witnesses for fear of the unpredictability of what they might say as well as the sheer embarrassment to Clinton should Lewinsky -- after being deposed -- testify in front of the nation about her affair with the president.
With several Republican senators saying they doubt witnesses are needed, the White House hoped to prevail on the issue.
But administration officials said little on the subject yesterday -- not wanting to alienate Republicans by interjecting their own wishes into a Senate matter.
In another development, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and nine other Republican senators submitted 10 written questions to the president. The letter said Clinton was not compelled to respond, but noted: "Personal answers from the president should prove beneficial in our efforts to reconcile conflicting testimony."
The senators said Clinton's lawyers need not reply, noting, "Only President Clinton can provide complete answers to these questions because many of them concern his state of mind or facts that only he is privy to."
James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said that neither Clinton nor his lawyers had any intention of responding to the questions. The White House fears such questions might be an attempt to entrap the president to commit perjury.
The questions revolve around the perjury and obstruction of justice impeachment articles against the president.
The senators asked, for instance, whether Clinton believed his statements to be true when he summoned his secretary, Betty Currie, to the White House. It was then, according to Currie's testimony to the grand jury, that Clinton asked his secretary: "Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right? You were always there when Monica was there, right? I was never really alone with Monica, right?"
The senators also asked if Clinton, in a 2 a.m. phone conversation with Lewinsky, told her that she could testify that she was visiting Currie or delivering papers to him if she was questioned under oath about her visits to the Oval Office.
The letter asked whether Clinton's testimony in his Paula Corbin Jones deposition was true, and whether Lewinsky lied in her grand jury testimony about sexual activities with the president.
Pub Date: 1/26/99