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Senate to hear counsel closings; Final arguments set today, but quick vote on censure unlikely


WASHINGTON -- The Senate hears final arguments today in President Clinton's impeachment trial, amid fresh signs of trouble for proponents of a toughly worded measure condemning Clinton for his behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

A group of Democratic and Republican senators is eager to have a Senate vote on a resolution censuring the president this week, immediately after his expected acquittal on impeachment charges. But chances appear to be fading for quick action.

One leading opponent of the idea, Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, warns that he will do everything he can to block a censure vote after the trial ends.

"Let me assure you, right now, this will not be voted on before we adjourn," Gramm declared yesterday on the NBC program "Meet the Press." The Senate is scheduled to begin an extended break on Friday in connection with the Presidents Day holiday next Monday.

With the trial now in its final hours, there were these developments: The first article of impeachment, charging Clinton with perjury, appears likely to be rejected by a majority of the Senate, according to several senators. That article could fall more than 25 votes short of the 67 required for conviction.

Prospects are fading for efforts to open the senators' deliberations on the articles to public view. It appears that the debate will be held in secret, in accordance with Senate rules and long-standing tradition.

Senators in both parties called on the Justice Department to investigate allegations that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal might have lied in his deposition last week in the impeachment trial. A magazine writer said Blumenthal told him over lunch last March that Monica Lewinsky was known as "a stalker," contrary to Blumenthal's testimony that he never revealed to anyone what Clinton said to him on Jan. 21, 1997, when the president used that word to describe Lewinsky.

Two senators, Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, left yesterday with Clinton and the U.S. delegation attending the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein. The senators are expected back in Washington tomorrow, in time for the start of deliberations on the two impeachment counts.

When the trial resumes this afternoon, lawyers on each side will have up to three hours to present closing arguments. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, is expected to give the final statement on behalf of the House managers, and White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff will close for the president.

There will be a vote, probably tomorrow but perhaps as early as today, on whether to open the Senate's deliberations on the articles of impeachment to the public.

A vote of two-thirds of the Senate is required to change the rules, and several Republican senators predicted yesterday that such an effort would fail. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire predicted that the move would fall short by four to seven votes.

Those who want the Senate deliberations to remain closed contend that juries always discuss their verdicts in secret. They say debate is likely to be shorter if the senators aren't playing to the cameras.

"We've had two closed sessions now," said Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah. "We're frankly a whole lot more comfortable with each other when the television is not recording things."

Those who favor open deliberations -- all 45 Democrats and an undetermined number of Republican senators -- say the matter is too important for closed debate.

"I think in the final statements, the American people should hear from each of us how we approach the articles of impeachment, the rationale," said Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Under impeachment rules, the trial will be recessed once deliberations begin. Each senator could then speak for up to 15 minutes.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has said the secret sessions could last three days.

Votes on whether to convict or acquit Clinton on the two articles of impeachment would take place no later than noon Friday, but perhaps as early as Thursday, according to Lott.

The first article, charging Clinton with perjury, is expected to receive fewer than 50 votes for conviction. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, predicted yesterday that 10 to 15 Republicans would vote to acquit Clinton on that article, which could mean as few as 40 votes for conviction.

Support for the second article, which accuses the president of obstruction of justice, is stronger. It, too, is expected to fall well short of the 67 votes needed for conviction and removal from office, and could be rejected by a majority of the Senate.

No Democrat has indicated support for conviction on either impeachment article.

During the weekend, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the senior Democrat in Congress, said in a television interview that he considers Clinton guilty of impeachable offenses on both counts. But Byrd stopped short of saying that he would vote to convict.

"It would be very difficult to stand and say, 'Not guilty.' Very difficult," Byrd said on ABC. "Who's kidding whom here? I have to live with myself. I have to live with my conscience. And I have to live with the Constitution. And that Constitution is just like the Bible. You can't write it over."

Byrd said that "in the interest of our country, I may come to the conclusion that we should not remove him."

Senators from both parties continue to search for a combination of words that will secure broad-based support for a resolution of censure.

"This thing remains fluid and we may not be able in the end to come up with a set of words that everyone can coalesce around," said Bennett, the main Republican sponsor, along with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, of the most widely supported draft measure.

Most Democrats have said that they favor censure. One who does not, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, said yesterday that he would prefer to see both houses of Congress approve a joint resolution that Clinton would be forced to sign.

Other opponents of a Senate censure say the idea is designed mainly to provide political cover to senators uncomfortable with the idea of a vote acquitting Clinton on impeachment charges.

"What we're really trying to do here, which is not unusual for politicians, people want to be on both sides of the issue," said Gramm, who has emerged as the most outspoken critic of censure. "They want to say the president's not guilty. They want to say the president's guilty."

But some Republicans see merit in having a Senate vote to condemn Clinton's behavior immediately after the impeachment trial.

Acquitting Clinton on impeachment charges "does leave you with sort of an empty feeling," acknowledged Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "That's why, depending upon the words, [censure] may have some appeal on the Republican side."

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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