Prosecutors play down expectations; No 'bombshell' likely from Lewinsky today, Republicans say; Senate grows restless; Focus on obstruction, as GOP senators hear skepticism on perjury


WASHINGTON -- On the eve of Monica Lewinsky's deposition for President Clinton's impeachment trial, House prosecutors were lowering expections that she might provide explosive new evidence.

Facing almost certain defeat in their quest for Clinton's removal from office and growing restlessness among the Senate jurors, House prosecutors were taking care not to overpromise for fear of losing the chance to call Lewinsky and other witnesses to testify in person before the Senate.

"I don't want anyone to think there's some huge bombshell here," said Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the prosecutors.

Instead, he suggested, Lewinsky might be able to clarify discrepancies in earlier testimony, solidifying the case against Clinton for obstruction of justice.

"I think there might be some new evidence that would nail this stuff down," McCollum said on "Fox News Sunday."

Another prosecutor, California Rep. James E. Rogan, cautioned on NBC's "Meet the Press": "I don't know that new information is, should be, the watchword."

Rogan described the deposition process that will unfold this week as a prelude to what he considers the essential element of live testimony from witnesses who disagree with each other.

"The president is putting his credibility at issue, he's putting Monica Lewinsky's credibility at issue, and that's the reason why, in our Anglo-American jurisprudential system, we have live witnesses and confrontation," Rogan said. "I just want the trial to begin from the people who know the evidence."

Among the prosecutors working the Sunday talk show circuit, the most optimistic about finding major new material in the deposition process was Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Graham said on "Fox News Sunday" that he was intrigued by the fear Lewinsky had expressed to her former friend, Linda R. Tripp, that crossing the Clinton White House could result in "bad things" happening to her.

"I want this side of the story developed," Graham said, while acknowledging that his colleagues in the House had labeled this conspiracy-theory line of inquiry worthy of the television thriller "X-Files."

Graham expressed the hope that presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal, who is to be deposed Wednesday, might be helpful in explaining how Clinton's story that Lewinsky was a "girl out of control trying to ruin his life" got circulated.

Despite their disappointment last week at being limited to deposing three witnesses and watching 44 Democratic senators vote to dismiss their case, House prosecutors pressed on, hoping the Senate jury can be swayed to produce a two-thirds majority of 67 in their favor.

Prosecutors are determined to prove not only that Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice in trying to hide his affair with Lewinsky, but that he must be removed from office because, as McCollum said, "He might do it again."

Lewinsky's deposition is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today at the Mayflower Hotel, where she stayed last week. The depositions of presidential confidants Vernon Jordan and Blumenthal are to be taken tomorrow and Wednesday, respectively.

Live testimony possible

Videotapes and transcripts of those sessions will be given to senators to review by midweek. By the end of the week, the Senate is scheduled to vote on whether to call any witnesses for live testimony and whether to publicly release tapes of the depositions.

Senators from both parties have expressed reluctance about inviting the spectacle of Lewinsky testifying about her relationship with the president from the well of the Senate.

GOP senators also reported skepticism yesterday within their ranks about whether Clinton's deceptions meet the legal test of perjury. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, suggested that a vote on the perjury charge might fail to draw a majority of 51 votes, in a chamber where Republicans outnumber Democrats 55 to 45.

But the trial has developed a momentum of its own that has defied the odds against it. For example, several Republican senators had also proclaimed themselves wary about deposing witnesses before they all voted in favor of depositions last week.

"This whole scandal has taken so many twists and turns I don't think anyone would predict" the outcome, Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, said on "Meet the Press."

There's no mistaking the restlessness. Both Republicans and Democrats are aiming to complete the trial by noon Feb. 12, the start of their long-planned midwinter break. Delay beyond that point has become a factor in the political calculation.

A spate of new polls showing that two-thirds of Americans consider witnesses unnecessary and want the trial to end are likely to increase senators' impatience. The poll numbers suggest the prosecutors have failed to make a dent in public opposition to the impeachment process.

The time factor could be a weapon against Collins' effort to persuade the Senate to take up a "finding of facts." She wants the Senate to be able to "avoid misunderstandings" if there are fewer than 67 votes to convict Clinton and he is thus acquitted and potentially able to claim exoneration.

Her proposal, which is vigorously opposed by the White House and many Senate Democrats, would provide for a Senate declaration that Clinton committed wrongful acts, but stop short of labeling his offenses crimes.

Such a finding could pass with a 51-vote majority. But under new trial rules adopted last week, the proposal would be subject to amendments, and thus to a vast arsenal of delaying tactics.

"I'm very troubled by what I see as an attempt to make an end run about the Constitution," Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said on CBS' "Face the Nation," promising that any attempt to pass Collins' proposal would "cause a lot of delays."

Starr leaks condemned

Nearly all participants in the trial were united yesterday in their condemnation of leaks from the office of Kenneth W. Starr that the independent counsel is considering seeking an indictment of Clinton while he's in office. They called it an unwelcome intervention in the trial that may affect how senators vote on Collins' proposal or on the articles of impeachment.

"It's not helpful at all," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican and one of the House prosecutors. "It takes the focus off a very difficult decision the Senate has to make."

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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