WASHINGTON -- The Senate resoundingly rejected yesterday an appearance by Monica Lewinsky at President Clinton's impeachment trial, instead allowing House prosecutors to present portions of the videotaped depositions of Lewinsky and two other witnesses when the trial resumes tomorrow.
Twenty-five Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic front to deal House prosecutors their first real defeat since the trial began last month, signaling that the yearlong impeachment process will draw to a close by the end of next week.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 96-year-old Republican from South Carolina, nearly leaped out of his seat to answer "no" when the roll was called on having Lewinsky as a witness.
"She's a pretty flashy woman," he later explained. "I'd like that, but from the standpoint of what's best for the Senate, I think she shouldn't come."
A last-ditch effort by Republicans to push a vote on Clinton's guilt without removing him from office also collapsed yesterday in the face of united Democratic opposition and waning GOP support.
"The way to end this is to vote guilty or not guilty, and live with it," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who opposes any censure-like effort to attach some further message to Clinton's almost certain acquittal.
Tomorrow, for the first time, Americans will see and hear Lewinsky discussing her relationship with the president and their efforts to hide it.
The president desperately wanted to avoid that. White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig argued strenuously against even placing the videotapes into the official record of the trial, warning that the images of Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal "will be forced, hour after hour, unbidden and uninvited, into the living rooms and family rooms of the nation."
But having denied House prosecutors their motion to present just one witness in the well of the Senate, senators from both parties decided that depositions taken secretly this week should not be hidden indefinitely from the public.
"It was just a matter of principle with me," said Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who has been trying in vain to open all the Senate's private deliberations in the trial. "I want everything in this trial to be as open as possible."
In another slap to the president's lawyers, Republican senators rejected a plea from the White House to be told in advance which portions of the videotape would be shown.
The president's lawyer, David E. Kendall, argued that such notification is routine and only fair if Clinton's defenders are to adequately respond to the House's presentation.
But House prosecutor James Rogan, quoting a former California Supreme Court justice, said flatly, "It's none of your damned business" what prosecutors plan to present.
His remark sent a shock wave through the staid and proper Senate chamber.
"I thought it was arrogant and inappropriate," said Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry. "As a matter of fairness, everything that the code of civil procedure tries to do is eliminate surprise. That answer ran counter to it."
After nearly a month, senators of both parties made it clear to House prosecutors yesterday that they have had enough.
"The whole tone is different," remarked New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer. "The feeling on both sides of the aisle is, let's finish this up. Let's not let the House managers continually drag this out."
Even before the proceedings began yesterday, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott laid out just how the trial will move to closure:
* Deposition transcripts will be released today;
* House prosecutors and White House lawyers will have three hours each tomorrow to present evidence from the videotapes;
* Six more hours will be allotted Monday for closing arguments;
* Beginning Tuesday, senators will have 16 to 25 hours of final deliberation;
* Thursday or Friday, they will vote whether the president should be convicted and removed from office for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Conviction and removal would require the votes of two-thirds of the senators.
Lott had already given up on bringing to a vote "findings of fact," which would have declared that the president "willfully provided false and misleading testimony" to a federal grand jury and "wrongfully engaged in conduct to delay the discovery and to cover up the existence of evidence and to alter testimony related to a federal civil rights lawsuit."
That GOP gambit had been offered as a way to ensure that Clinton could not claim exoneration after his expected impeachment acquittal.
But Democrats, the White House and some Republicans protested that the findings would violate the Constitution and set a dangerous precedent by allowing a simple majority of the Senate to, in effect, convict a president without removing him from office.
"I'm wondering if it was really more of a political decision than an honest evaluation of the proposal," said Maine Republican Olympia J. Snowe, a key proponent.
Lott sought to allay any GOP concerns, saying, "I don't think any president that has been impeached and tried by the Senate, even though he may not be removed, could feel like he's gotten off scot-free."
One of the findings' authors and primary boosters, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, all but conceded that the effort had failed. "If no Democrat is going to support it, then I think [the findings] are perilously close to being dead," he said.
With that option disintegrating, House prosecutors made one last stab at gaining a conviction, or at least inflicting still more embarrassment on the president.
Knowing they could not win enough votes to call all three witnesses to the Senate floor, they requested only Lewinsky. She is "the central witness in the cast of this entire proceeding," said House prosecutor Bill McCollum of Florida.
Prosecutor Ed Bryant of Tennessee, who deposed Lewinsky on Monday, conceded that the former White House intern had been less than helpful, offering only guarded, clipped responses to his questions.
"Her testimony is clearly tinted, some might even say tainted, by a mixture of her continued admiration for the president, her desire to protect him and her own personal views of right and wrong," Bryant lamented, hinting that perhaps she would loosen up on the Senate floor.
Prosecutors also pushed hard to be allowed to use the videotapes.
Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, for instance, spoke of "dramatic" revelations in Jordan's deposition that show "the control and direction of the president of the United States in the effort to obstruct justice."
But it was not clear how his examples would further the case for Clinton's conviction.
Jordan was forced to concede that he had breakfast with Lewinsky on Dec. 31, 1997, a meeting he previously denied had happened, and that he knew the search for a job for Lewinsky was at the behest of the president.
But such "revelations" do not directly implicate Clinton in illegal acts.
House prosecutors released a series of deposition excerpts last night, but many of them could be interpreted as more favorable to Clinton than against him. For instance, Lewinsky said she had breakfast with Jordan not to talk about her job search but to warn Jordan and the president that her former friend, Linda Tripp, would soon betray her.
"I felt I needed to devise some way to cushion the shock of what would happen if Linda Tripp testified all the facts about my relationship," she said.
At that breakfast, House prosecutors maintain, Jordan told Lewinsky to destroy notes she had written to the president so they would not fall into the hands of Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers. But Lewinsky told Bryant the discussion about the notes "was really in relation to discussing Linda Tripp."
Even Hutchinson conceded that the videotape of Jordan that he so wanted to present would not be scintillating.
"I went and saw the videotape and I was underwhelmed by my questioning," he allowed. "I thought we had a dynamic exchange, but when I saw it on videotape, I'm nowhere to be found. You get to look at Mr. Jordan, a distinguished gentleman."
White House lawyers tried hard to play up the mounting frustration with a trial whose outcome has been a foregone conclusion for days, if not weeks. Craig told senators they had already "indulged" the dogged House prosecutors and "leaned over backwards to accommodate" them.
"The moment of truth can no longer be avoided, and the Senate should move to make its decision," Craig said. "The Senate must act now to end this impeachment trial, finally and for all time."
At the trial
The Senate "court of impeachment" is in recess as House prosecutors and President Clinton's lawyers prepare for tomorrow's presentation of evidence based on videotaped testimony by Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal. The trial resumes at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
Pub Date: 2/05/99