Trial nears final phase; House prosecutors appeal to Senate to rise above party; Next vote on open debate; Clinton counsel says conviction would rip constitutional fabric


WASHINGTON -- The House Republican prosecutors and White House lawyers turned the impeachment trial over to the Senate jury yesterday, after prosecutors implored senators to rise above their political interests, ignore White House "spin" and remove President Clinton from office.

But Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, warned that a conviction of the president would rip a hole in the constitutional fabric that has clothed American society and will clothe future generations for "millennia to come."

"We cannot leave even the smallest flaw in that fabric," Ruff said, "for if we do, one day someone will come along and pull a thread, and the flaw will grow and soon the entire cloth will begin to unravel."

After 5 1/2 hours of often repetitive closing arguments from the prosecutors and the White House, senators were left to deliberate the fate of the president, with the only real suspense being how far the prosecutors will fall short in seeking 67 votes for conviction on either of two articles of impeachment.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the lead House prosecutor, dashed off a letter to Senate leaders, asking them to call three more witnesses to testify to whether Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House aide, lied under oath last week. In his testimony to the prosecutors, Blumenthal denied giving journalists details from conversations he had had with Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky story broke. But two journalists have submitted sworn affidavits that Blumenthal told them Lewinsky was a "stalker," a term Clinton had used in those private conversations.

Senators are showing little appetite for prolonging the trial "another two minutes," as a Republican leadership aide put it. Even a bipartisan effort to censure Clinton after his expected acquittal appears to be faltering in the face of conservative Republican opposition and a rush toward closure this week.

The Senate will vote today on whether its final deliberations should be held in public. It appears unlikely that a motion to change the Senate rules to open up the deliberations will garner the necessary 67 votes for passage. A final vote to convict or acquit Clinton, for perjury and obstruction of justice arising from the Lewinsky scandal, will come by Friday, and perhaps as early as Thursday.

"We are blessedly coming to the end of this melancholy procedure," Hyde, of Illinois, acknowledged as he began the last of 13 closing statements delivered by each member of the prosecution team.

The prosecutors concluded yesterday with pleas that were at times passionate, at times weary, at times bordering on self-pity and at times seething with frustration and anger. Hyde called the impeachment saga a battle in the nation's "culture war." Another prosecutor, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, his voice dripping with indignation, spoke of a nation in "hopeless decline." Another, Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, said it appeared to him "the fix was in."

"I wonder if after this culture war is over that we're engaged in, if an America will survive that's worth fighting to defend," Hyde said. "People won't risk their lives for the U.N. or over the Dow Jones averages. But I wonder in future generations whether there'll be enough vitality left in duty, honor and country to excite our children and grandchildren to defend America."

The prosecutors recognize that they cannot produce the two-thirds Senate majority needed to remove a president for the first time. They have lowered their sights on obtaining a 51-vote majority, the threshold that Hyde said would legitimize the House's vote in December to impeach Clinton. Many Republicans acknowledge that that simple majority could be in jeopardy, though Senate Republicans hold a 55-45 edge over Democrats.

Since last week, Republican senators have openly raised the prospect of at least a half-dozen Republicans joining all 45 Democrats to vote against a conviction for perjury. Yesterday, some began questioning whether the obstruction of justice charge, which had been considered stronger, can garner a simple majority of senators, either.

The obstruction of justice charge "is like this garbage can that picks up so much of the garbage in this case," said Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who had formerly indicated he would probably vote for the obstruction charge.

While a parade of House prosecutors used nearly all their allotted three hours, just one of the president's lawyers, Ruff, spoke yesterday. Consuming just over half his given time, the White House counsel coolly and methodically disputed each of the charges, which he dismissed as "moving targets and empty pots."

Nearly a month ago, when he opened the president's defense, Ruff had called the charges empty vessels. But he said yesterday that that characterization struck him as overly flattering, since a vessel might have "the capacity to float."

Few, if any, new arguments emerged as the cases were brought to a close. Though he had fought to keep videotaped depositions out of the trial, Ruff made much more use of them yesterday than did the prosecutors who had conducted the interviews.

Ruff raised some new challenges. He used the statements of a prosecutor, Rep. James E. Rogan of California, on a cable news show to try to undermine the perjury charge that Rogan had argued for.

Another prosecutor, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, suggested last month that Clinton had examined about 15 drafts of an affidavit Lewinsky gave in which she denied having had a sexual relationship with the president. But Ruff showed that the prosecutors had quietly acknowledged to the Senate that no such drafts existed.

The prosecutors had also submitted an affidavit from a clerk in the court of the judge in the Paula Jones lawsuit, stating, as prosecutors put it, that the president was "listening attentively" as his lawyer in that case, Robert S. Bennett, said there had been no sex of any kind between Clinton and Lewinsky. The prosecutors contended that this was proof of both perjury and obstruction, since Clinton had denied paying attention as Bennett made that statement and did nothing to correct him.

But, Ruff said, the affidavit from the clerk said nothing about the president looking "attentively." And the clerk was quoted in a legal newspaper as saying, "I have no idea if he was paying attention."

"You were misled," Ruff told the Senate.

As for the charge that Clinton deliberately lied to his aides about Lewinsky to pass those lies on to Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, Ruff for the first time invoked this argument: Why would Clinton lie to aides like Blumenthal, then immediately claim executive privilege to block them from testifying?

"For someone who wanted Mr. Blumenthal to serve as the managers would have it, as his messenger of lies, that's strange behavior indeed," Ruff said.

For the prosecutors, such arguments amounted to nitpicking an overwhelming case -- "picking lint," according to Hyde.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, another prosecutor, told the senators that if they believed even just one of the six counts of obstruction of justice, they must vote to remove Clinton.

And Graham sought to personalize Clinton's offenses, returning to his oft-repeated assertion that the president orchestrated a smear campaign to undermine Lewinsky or anyone else in his way. Graham's assertion was somewhat bolstered by the affidavits from two journalists saying Blumenthal told them that Lewinsky was a "stalker," despite Blumenthal's statements under oath that he was not the source for any news report that repeated that description.

"It's the most disgusting part of the case," said Graham, his voice lowered nearly to a contemptuous whisper. "The White House is a bully pulpit, but it should not be occupied by a bully."

To a man, House prosecutors were unflinching in their demands that Clinton be convicted.

"I implore you to muster the courage of your convictions, to muster the courage the founding fathers believed the Senate would always have in times like these," McCollum said. "William Jefferson Clinton has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Convict him and remove him."

The deliberations should begin this afternoon. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, moved yesterday to limit each speech to 10 minutes, rather than the 15 minutes allotted by Senate rules.

Republicans appear to have enough votes to keep the debate in secret. They argued that closed-door deliberations would minimize grandstanding and could allow the final votes to come by Thursday.

That would leave senators with one day to wrangle over a resolution to censure Clinton before they depart for a one-week recess. But even censure was losing steam, as both the House and Senate begin looking beyond the Lewinsky wars that have consumed Washington for more than a year.

Though another prosecutor, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, railed against White House smoke screens and challenged the Senate's "moral fortitude," he offered an olive branch of sorts.

"I would ask everyone here today to make a commitment," Chabot said, "a commitment to every American that regardless of the trial's outcome, we will join together to turn the page on this unfortunate chapter that President Clinton has written into our nation's history."

Sun staff writers Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

At the trial today

1 p.m. Senate "court of impeach- ment" resumes.

A vote is expected on a proposal to change Senate rules to allow senators to deliberate the articles of impeachment in public.

Afterward, the Senate begins deliberations -- the final action before the articles are put to a vote this week.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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