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Barring 'bolt of lightning,' trial should end by Feb. 12, says Lott; Majority leader's estimate comes just hours after he set Feb. 6 as target date; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- Too torn by partisanship to agree on a grand plan for concluding President Clinton's impeachment trial, the Senate is trying to inch toward the goal of a mid-February finale one step at a time.

In the wake of the almost strictly party-line votes they had hoped to avoid, Senate leaders were working last night on a proposal for deposing witnesses over the weekend that would conclude with a vote Tuesday on whether to call any witnesses to testify in person to the Senate.

Feuding continued over such issues as whether depositions would be videotaped and what role the White House would play during that process. The disputes forced Senate Majority Trent Lott to concede that the trial is not likely to conclude by the Feb. 6 target date he proposed yesterday morning.

"But barring some bolt of lightning" in the form of new evidence "that we do not now see," Lott said, "we should be through with it by Lincoln's Day recess" on Feb. 12.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said he also was optimistic. "But I've been optimistic before," the South Dakota Democrat conceded.

Senators of both parties have been making a determined effort not to let the impeachment trial deteriorate into a partisan brawl as it did in the House. But they failed to head off the two votes yesterday on which nearly all Democrats -- 44 -- voted to dismiss the trial and rejected the calling of witnesses. The majority Republicans unanimously voted down the dismissal motion, and then voted to allow three witnesses.

Both sides sought to minimize the political fallout from bickering and delays by shifting the blame. Republicans said they were moving as quickly as possible to ensure that the trial is conducted as fairly as possible to both sides.

"What this process has always been about is not getting votes, but getting to the truth," said Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican. "The Senate would find itself very embarrassed if a few months from now we're reading from [Monica Lewinsky's] memoirs to find out that she had admitted the rest of it."

If Democrats cannot come to terms with Republicans on a procedure for continuing the trial, Craig said, the Republican majority is prepared to proceed on its own.

Democrats charged that Republicans were bending to the demands of House Republican prosecutors who failed to make their case -- something that Democrats say was demonstrated by the nearly unanimous Democratic vote in favor of dismissal.

"What we learned today is that there's 44 votes to dismiss; that means there's 44 votes not to convict," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, alluding to the 67 votes that are needed to remove Clinton from office. "So, it's a question of, how do we bring it to a conclusion expeditiously?"

Even so, many Democrats said they felt they had to protect Clinton from losing all his rights in any expedited procedure.

"This is not 'L.A. Law,' this is not 'Judge Judy,' this is not 'Court TV,' " said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, arguing that the president's lawyers need time to prepare for the depositions and review evidence.

David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney, has said that the White House might need weeks to prepare for the testimony of witnesses. But Republican senators scoffed at that idea, and there were signs last night that the White House was willing to accept a shortened timetable.

Both Senate Republicans and the White House think they have something to fear from allowing the trial to go on much longer.

Polls consistently show that a sizable majority of Americans do not believe the president should be removed from office and want the trial to end. Republicans run the risk of being punished at the polls if voters decide they are extending the trial just to please House Republicans.

"We are on this path because of the preposterous argument by the House Republican [prosecutors] that they had to bring these witnesses in so you could look them in the eye," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat. "My response to the House is: Why didn't you have to bring them in?"

For Clinton, there is always the risk that an unexpected development could change the math in the Senate, where yesterday's votes seemed to make clear that a two-thirds majority to convict him would be impossible.

"He'd be nuts to do what he's talking about," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said of Kendall's talk of lengthy delays. "The longer this goes on, the more imperiled this president would be."

Negotiators last night were trying to figure out how to keep the witness process brief, while preserving at least some of the president's ability to call witnesses and defend himself against any new information.

"If there's going to be depositions, the White House just wants to know it has sufficient time to prepare for any surprises," Breaux added. "I don't think there's going to be any surprises."

A group of Republicans also continued to press for "findings of fact," which would detail actions that the Senate believes Clinton took but would stop short of declaring that he committed any specific crimes.

Many Democrats have suggested that such a plan is unconstitutional. Dodd called it a "non-starter." But the idea has Lott's blessing and may be a bargaining chip as the deal making goes on.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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