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'This is the moment of truth'; Senators retreat behind closed doors to deliberate verdict; Acquittal still expected


WASHINGTON -- With President Clinton's acquittal virtually assured, the Senate rebuffed a motion yesterday for public deliberations, closed its doors and began weighing an impeachment verdict that is expected to be reached by tomorrow.

The senators are thought to be far short of the 67 votes needed to convict Clinton of either perjury or obstruction of justice and remove a president for the first time in U.S. history.

Away from public view, the mood inside the chamber yesterday turned somber, several senators said, as members who had been sitting silently for nearly a month listening to lawyers' arguments finally got a chance to exchange views on whether the House Republican prosecutors' case justifies Clinton's removal.

"Everybody's taking it all pretty seriously," Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, said during a break in deliberations. "This is the moment of truth."

Eighteen senators took to the floor in the first four hours of deliberations, with many of them using the full 15 minutes granted to each senator.

Most of them explained how they planned to vote but did not engage other senators in a full-fledged debate.

The first senator to speak, Slade Gorton, a Washington state Republican, announced that he would vote to convict Clinton on the obstruction of justice charge because "it is clear that he obstructed justice."

Gorton said he would vote to acquit Clinton of perjury.

"I cannot will to my children and grandchildren the proposition that a president stands above the law and can systematically obstruct justice simply because both his polls and the Dow Jones index are high," Gorton said in a statement that he said repeated his remarks during the deliberations.

Behind the scenes, many Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans are trying to build support for a formal Senate censure of Clinton that would be voted on after a verdict is reached.

But with some fervent Republicans vowing to block any attempt to have the Senate vote on the proposal, prospects for a censure resolution are dim.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is determined to end the trial with a vote on the two articles of impeachment by tomorrow, and some senators said they might not use their allotted speaking time.

"I wish they would all have yielded back their time," quipped Rep. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, reflecting the Senate's eagerness to get the impeachment trial behind them.

The Senate was almost giddy with relief as it began yesterday's session, brushing aside last-ditch motions that would have delayed the proceedings.

More than on any previous day, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist bantered with the senators as they moved swiftly to deny a request by the prosecutors for additional witnesses and to block an effort that would have opened the deliberations to public view.

"The parliamentarian tells me this is all out of order," the chief justice observed with a smile at one point, when a barrage of questions began to sound suspiciously like a debate. His remark sent the Senate into rollicking laughter.

No one claims to expect that the secret deliberations -- only the second time in history that the Senate has weighed removing a president from office -- will alter the likely acquittal of Clinton on charges stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

A two-thirds majority is required to convict and remove the president. At this point, it is not even certain that a simple majority of 51 senators will vote to convict Clinton.

But in this final debate, the senators will be playing to history in a way that their predecessors in the trial of President Andrew Johnson 131 years ago could not do because their deliberations were not only private but also unrecorded.

In the Clinton trial, a transcript is being made of the deliberations so that each senator can decide whether to make public his or her own remarks after the trial.

As a result, their statements are likely to be similar to what they would have been if offered in public, full of high-flown rhetoric and laced with partisan politics.

At the start of yesterday's session, a solid bloc of mostly conservative Republican senators defeated a move to open the deliberations to public view.

The 59-41 vote in favor of opening the proceedings fell short of the two-thirds majority required to change the 19th-century Senate rules. (Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, voted for public deliberations.)

Explaining his opposition to open deliberations, Lott said he was hoping for a free-flowing exchange of views during deliberations that might have an effect on any still-wavering senators -- the way a regular trial jury operates.

But other Republicans said privately that they did not want to open the debate and thereby provide a forum for Democrats to attack the House prosecutors for conducting what Clinton's defenders call a partisan witch hunt.

"My guess is that they don't want us to tell the full story of what this case is about," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

By keeping a transcript and allowing senators to release their own remarks, Senate leaders have not only ensured that those who want to make political statements will do so, but have given senators the device many feel they need to explain themselves.

Democrats, in particular, have been frustrated by the rules of the impeachment process, which require that senators vote either to convict and remove Clinton or to acquit him. Many have said they want to have some means to express their disapproval of the president's conduct, even while believing his transgressions do not justify removal from office.

But the Democrat-led drive to pass a Senate censure of Clinton at the conclusion of the trial is expected to be blocked by senators who say it would set a dangerous precedent that could upset the balance of powers.

"Censure is about political cover," says Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who has threatened an array of delaying amendments to any censure motion.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who had been seeking a Senate "finding of facts" in the case but has now joined the censure drive, said she hopes that if at least 60 senators back the proposal, Gramm and other opponents can be persuaded to allow a vote.

More likely, though, the senators' closing comments in the trial deliberations will be the record they leave for their constituents today and for future students of U.S. political history.

Before the deliberations began, the senators made quick work of a request by House prosecutors to call additional witnesses to pursue the accusation that a senior White House aide, Sidney Blumenthal, lied in his Senate deposition.

Two journalists -- Christopher Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue -- have signed affidavits declaring that Blumenthal had passed along to them last year Clinton's claim that Lewinsky was "a stalker" who had tried, but failed, to have sex with the president.

A third journalist, Scott Armstrong, also signed an affidavit confirming that Hitchens and Blue had told him at the time of Blumenthal's comments.

Blumenthal told the Senate that while Clinton had offered him this version of his relationship with Lewinsky, he never passed along the president's assertion to reporters. House prosecutors say they now have proof that Blumenthal lied to protect Clinton from the charge that the president orchestrated a campaign to destroy Lewinsky's credibility.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, acting on the prosecutors' behalf, requested yesterday that the journalists be deposed and their affidavits be inserted into the trial record.

But Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who under trial rules has veto power over new witnesses, objected to the request, and that was the end of it.

"We don't need additional witnesses," Daschle said. "We don't need additional time spent on further depositions. We need to get on with the final elements of this trial. That means Senate deliberation and finally a vote on the articles."

Lott referred another loose end from the Clinton investigation to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Lott acted at the request of an unidentified Republican senator who said he had received a tip that the White House has a taping system that might have recorded conversations between Clinton and Lewinsky that could be relevant to the case.

Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, has denied the existence of such a system. And Starr's office has reportedly looked into this matter before.

Lott made no request for a report from Starr, and any information that results would not play a role in the trial, which senators are eager to end.

At the trial today

10 a.m. -- Senate "court of impeachment" resumes.

Senators continue to deliberate the articles of impeachment in closed session.

No votes are scheduled today.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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