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GOP would settle for party-line vote on 'findings of fact'; Republicans drafting strongly worded motion; Democrats resist proposal; TRIAL IN THE SENATE


WASHINGTON -- It sounds innocuous enough, a Senate vote on "findings of fact" in the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton.

But what one party has called "facts," the other party has called rash political judgments, and the GOP's proposal to vote on findings of fact before a final vote on conviction could turn into a major stumbling block in the quest to end the trial by Feb. 12.

A group of Republican senators is drafting a strongly worded motion that would say President Clinton lied under oath and "obstructed and impeded justice" when he testified before a federal grand jury and took certain actions in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct suit.

The idea was floated Sunday as a trial balloon, and it appeared to be sinking fast Wednesday night. But GOP leaders awoke yesterday to the realization that Clinton almost certainly will not be removed from office. And Clinton's impending acquittal -- along with the image of an impeached president claiming blanket exoneration at a White House victory celebration -- bolstered Republicans' resolve to adopt findings, even if they have to do it strictly along party lines.

"Those who believe he lied under oath and obstructed justice, but those offenses don't rise to the level of impeachment, how can they possibly vote for acquittal on this matter?" asked an exasperated Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

Of the findings of fact, he said, "it will tend to be partisan. I don't think you'll get one Democrat vote for it. But it has to be done."

It was far from certain last night that Republicans would unanimously support it, either.

Saying the findings were being crafted for "political cover," Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, threw cold water on the idea. "I don't feel I need political cover," he said. "There are a considerable number of [Republican senators] who are doubtful."

Democrats appear united in their opposition, some because they do not believe perjury and obstruction have been proven and others because they believe the motion is unconstitutional. And they fear that an official finding of illegal activity would increase Clinton's legal jeopardy, should independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr choose to indict him.

"It's a ruse on their part," fumed Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat. "It's really like a third article of impeachment."

Republicans are also somewhat divided over the wording of the findings.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who is helping to draft the document, holds out hope that a more gently worded motion could attract Democrats and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. Rather than saying flatly that Clinton lied and obstructed justice, she has proposed wording that says he made "untruthful and misleading statements" and "encouraged witnesses" to do the same.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, expressed some sympathy for Clinton's legal exposure when he said he wanted "to make sure [the findings are] stated in a way that doesn't deny the president his due process in the courts."

And he hinted that he could go along with a much more delicately worded motion, akin to Democratic resolutions of censure that condemn the president for reprehensible conduct in his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent efforts to conceal it from the nation, his Cabinet and other government officials. Those Democratic resolutions carefully avoid alleging illegal acts.

"Is there a difference between censure and findings of fact? I'm not sure there is," Grassley said.

But Democrats and the White House are adamantly opposed, and they fear that the more strongly worded resolutions will triumph in the end.

"What they're trying to do in a political way is construct a procedure where they can convict the president without removing him," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "They want to have it both ways. They can't. The Constitution doesn't allow it."

The Constitution does have conviction and removal in the same sentence, seemingly making them inseparable. But Republican aides drafting the findings of fact say they are choosing the words carefully to ensure that their adoption is not synonymous with conviction.

The Constitution may not specifically suggest a split verdict on findings of wrongdoing and removal from office, but it does not preclude it either.

"The Senate is the highest court in the land when it comes to impeachment," University of Michigan law professor Yale Kamisar said. "It can do pretty much what it wants."

Aides readily admit Republicans will never gain the support of two-thirds of the Senate for anything that could be interpreted as conviction. But they insist they can ram through a strongly worded finding of illegal actions on a majority vote.

Democrats will almost certainly object, contending that any such findings would take at least 67 votes. But even if Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agrees with the Democrats, a simple majority can overturn that ruling.

After weeks of struggling to maintain the aura of bipartisanship, frustrated Republicans say they are now ready to rule by majority vote.

"You reach a point where if they're not going to deal in fairness with this, then you go to a majority vote and see what happens," Hatch said.

But at least one Republican is openly worried about a partisan vote on such a politically charged topic.

"I think it's alive," Alabama Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby said of the findings of fact. "I hope it's not breathing very well."

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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