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Likelihood of live testimony dwindles; Interrogation of Blumenthal yields little new evidence


WASHINGTON -- As pressure builds to end President Clinton's impeachment trial, the House Republican prosecutors are facing long odds in their quest to win Senate approval for live witnesses who could prolong the unpopular trial.

With votes on the witness issue to begin today, Republican support seems to be shifting toward allowing prosecutors to use only excerpts of the videotaped depositions of Monica Lewinsky and the two other witnesses -- and perhaps only in closing arguments.

"I doubt seriously that there'll be the votes to have any live witnesses in this matter," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, predicted in an interview on NBC's "Today."

"I've always been in favor of live witnesses. I think you let the American people be the judge. And the only way they can is to see these people in person."

The prosecutors' request for live testimony was not helped yesterday when the deposition of their third and final witness, Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, failed to produce any major new evidence.

The prosecutors assert that Clinton told Blumenthal a false account of his relationship with Lewinsky, knowing that Blumenthal would be summoned before Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury and would repeat that lie.

Though they had up to four hours to question Blumenthal, the prosecutors took only about 70 minutes.

As with Lewinsky's deposition Monday, White House lawyers asked no questions of Blumenthal, signaling that they felt the prosecutors' queries had done nothing to advance the case for Clinton's conviction and removal from office.

In the meantime, Senate Republicans debated yesterday whether to seek a vote on a "finding of fact" that Clinton committed wrongdoing, even though the president is likely to be acquitted on the actual articles of impeachment.

Democrats are unanimously opposed to such a finding, which some call unconstitutional, and Republican sentiment is mixed.

Votes today and perhaps tomorrow on how to handle witness testimony may represent the last great hurdle for the prosecutors before the end of what has become a nearly impossible case for them to win.

With a two-thirds majority needed to convict Clinton and remove him from office, the prosecutors have been counting on some revelation or emotional impact from witnesses, particularly Lewinsky, to change the dynamic in their favor.

Live testimony from the Senate floor has long been a top goal of the prosecutors, and they vowed to continue the fight.

"If they're going to have a verdict that will withstand the test of history, these witnesses should come forward, and they should be put under oath live on the Senate floor," said Rep. James E. Rogan, a California Republican who led the questioning of Blumenthal.

But with polls showing a sizable majority of Americans critical of the Republicans' handling of the trial and eager for it to end, Republican senators are losing their enthusiasm for calling witnesses to help chronicle a presidential affair and cover-up.

"From what I've seen of the depositions, I don't think we need live witnesses," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, one of at least a half-dozen Republicans who have expressed such doubts. "I think the videotape excerpts will serve that purpose."

Among other Republicans who have voiced skepticism about the need for live witnesses are Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, John W. Warner of Virginia and Ted Stevens of Alaska. James M. Jeffords of Vermont is also leaning against voting for witnesses, an aide said.

The defection of a handful of the 55 Republicans could doom live testimony because most -- and perhaps all -- of the 45 Democrats are also expected to vote against it.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, leader of the prosecutors, said last night that his team would also seek permission today to use excerpts from the three depositions -- of Lewinsky, Blumenthal and Vernon Jordan, a Clinton confidant -- in a presentation that would require a day or so.

Hatch, Brownback and other senators say they envision a briefer process, perhaps allowing the prosecutors and White House attorneys to use the deposition videotapes in closing arguments, which could begin Saturday.

But Hyde complained that if the videotapes were used that way, "the flow of rhetoric gets interrupted."

Democrats might fight any limited use of the videotapes, demanding that depositions be publicly released in their entirety or not at all.

"My inclination is that it's all or nothing," said Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader.

In his deposition yesterday, sources said, Blumenthal conceded that Clinton never pulled him aside to correct the original story that the president had told him about Lewinsky just after the sex scandal became public.

When Blumenthal first relayed that story to Starr's grand jury last year, he said Clinton had told him that Lewinsky was known as "the stalker" by her peers, that she made sexual demands that Clinton had rebuffed, and that Clinton and Lewinsky were always "within eyeshot or earshot of someone" when they were together.

But Blumenthal vigorously denied being responsible for the leaks to the media that put some of those stories into public circulation in the days after the scandal broke.

When one of the House prosecutors, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, mentioned Kathleen Willey, White House lawyers strenuously objected, arguing that Willey's accusations of an unwanted sexual advance by Clinton were not relevant to the two articles of impeachment. Blumenthal did finally assert that he was not involved in any White House strategy session on the Willey matter.

Since December, Graham has argued that White House aides have systematically used media leaks to try to discredit the president's potential accusers, a theory adamantly rejected by the White House.

White House lawyers asked nothing of Blumenthal yesterday. On Monday, one of Clinton's lawyers also declined to question Lewinsky and read an apology on behalf of the president. On Tuesday, another Clinton lawyer asked Jordan two questions.

Yesterday's questioning was particularly contentious, according to sources who were there. Blumenthal sat in a secure room in the Senate for close to three hours, but lawyers spent most of the time arguing with each other.

The president's allies questioned the point of even deposing Blumenthal. If Clinton had lied to Blumenthal in order to pass on the lie to Starr's grand jury, they asked, then why did White House lawyers seek to quash the subpoena for Blumenthal to testify?

And when they failed, why did Blumenthal try to assert executive privilege to avoid answering any questions about his conversations with Clinton?

"That seems like a pretty fundamental question," said Jody Powell, the former spokesman for President Jimmy Carter and an informal Clinton adviser.

Senate Republicans were wrestling last night with whether they should -- or even can -- seek a vote on the "finding of fact" that would likely fall along party lines. Driving the proposal is a concern that the Senate's likely failure to produce a two-thirds vote to convict Clinton would be misinterpreted as a complete exoneration.

"The conclusion could be that he did nothing wrong," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who favors some statement of presidential guilt.

Democrats have roundly denounced the proposal to condemn Clinton by a simple majority vote as a cynical ploy to bypass the deliberately high two-thirds majority required for conviction.

"The notion of trumping the articles of impeachment with even a 'broad' findings of fact flies in the face of what the framers of the Constitution intended," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat, wrote in a column in yesterday's Washington Post.

Many Republicans said they agreed with him.

"I don't think we should muddy up the impeachment precedent with a finding of fact," said Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican.

Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, observed: "It's not unconstitutional, but it's a mistake. It creates a new path where the legislative branch can discipline the executive branch."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was determined yesterday to make at least one additional gesture of support to the House prosecutors: He was circulating a letter, to be signed by his Republican colleagues, asking Clinton to submit to a deposition for the trial.

The White House has said repeatedly that Clinton has no intention of personally taking part in the trial in any way.

At the trial today

1 p.m. -- The Senate "court of impeachment" resumes. Votes could be taken on procedures in the Senate as the trial of President Clinton continues.

A vote might be taken on offering as evidence the testimony given in private this week by Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal.

Senators could vote on House prosecutors' proposals to allow public release of all or parts of the videotaped depositions, and vote to call the witnesses to testify in person before the Senate.

Senate leaders could propose that additional evidence be gathered or more witnesses be questioned. The White House could file motions to call witnesses or to admit new evidence to rebut the witnesses' testimony.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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