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Dismissal, no; witnesses, yes
The Senate voted virtually along party lines yesterday to defeat a Democratic proposal to dismiss the impeachment charges against President Clinton, then summoned Monica Lewinsky and two others as trial witnesses.
The tally on separate proposals to dismiss the charges and to depose witnesses made clear that nowhere near the required two-thirds of the Senate is ready to convict the president.
Republicans and Democrats both drafted proposals last night that would end the trial by Feb. 12. Yet by summoning witnesses yesterday, the Senate shifted the trial into unpredictable territory.
All but one Democrat, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, voted to throw out the charges immediately, signaling that most Democrats believe the offenses, even if proved, would not warrant the first removal of a president. The votes on both motions was 56-44, with Feingold joining the unanimous Republicans in voting against dismissal and to approve the deposing of witnesses.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, wasted no time in declaring the impeachment saga all but over.
"The president will not be removed from office," Daschle said moments after the votes. "For the good of the country and in keeping with the Constitution, it is now time to end this trial. It is time to move on."
White House aides also seized on the vote tallies yesterday, imploring the Senate to wrap up the trial and hinting that they will drop their demands for an extended period to examine documents and possibly call witnesses.
"The votes are not there to convict and remove the president," said Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel. "Any proceedings from this day forward only serve to delay the final resolution of this matter and run counter to the best interest of the Congress, the presidency and the American people."
The Republicans, too, were firm. All 55 Republican senators voted against dismissal and for witness depositions. Some wavering Republicans, who over the weekend had indicated they might vote against witnesses, were reassured once House prosecutors presented a scaled-back list of three witnesses.
Against the wishes of the prosecutors, the depositions are likely to be videotaped, in which case the witnesses -- Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal -- wouldn't appear live before the Senate.
Prosecutors have complained that they were not allowed to call many more witnesses and are likely to be tied to strict time limits in their questioning. But they found a victory in both votes yesterday, especially in the defeat of motion to dismiss the charges, made by West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
"In effect, they said the offenses we have charged are impeachable offenses and there is enough evidence to move forward," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, one of the House prosecutors.
Senate Republicans said the Senate and the nation can hope to end the yearlong presidential sex scandal only with testimony from witnesses and with a formal vote for Clinton's conviction or acquittal.
"I'm willing to travel the road wherever it leads, whether it's to conviction or the acquittal of the president," said Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican. "But in order to do that, I need more evidence. I need witnesses and further evidence to guide me to the right destination, to get to the truth."
Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, said, "I don't think it can ever be an exercise in futility to try to find the truth. That's what this is about."
Conviction appeared to be far out of reach. Feingold said his votes against dismissing the charges and in favor of witnesses don't necessarily mean he will vote to convict Clinton, but only that he did not want to "improperly short-circuit this trial."
"At this point, the House managers' case has some serious problems, and I am not certain that it can be helped by further testimony from witnesses," Feingold said. "I simply cannot say that the House managers cannot prevail."
Facing high odds against conviction, some Senate Republicans hope to propose today a conclusion that would fall short of the president's removal. They would propose "findings of fact" that would detail the events that led to the president's impeachment in December. But they would not conclude that he lied to a grand jury or obstructed justice to hide his affair with Lewinsky.
The motion would require a simple majority to pass, and it would precede a vote on conviction. If the motion passed, Clinton would remain in office. Some Democrats worry that such a finding could increase the president's legal vulnerability if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr indicts him.
Senators from both parties worked through the afternoon to draw a road map for the remainder of the trial, which both sides hope to end by mid-February.
Republican senators proposed a procedure that would end the trial by the Senate's President's Day recess, which will begin Feb. 12.
Under one proposal, each witness' deposition would be limited to six hours, equally divided between questioning by House prosecutors and by White House lawyers. One senator from each party would mediate the procedures.
Videotapes and transcripts of the sessions would be distributed early next week to senators, who would vote almost immediately on whether to bring the witnesses to the Senate floor.
The Republican timetable would allow for live testimony and closing arguments before a final vote. The deadline for ending the trial could be extended if, after the depositions, White House lawyers asked for time to investigate leads and call witnesses.
"I believe, certainly barring some bolt-of-lightning discovery that we don't now see, we would be through with it before the Lincoln Day recess period," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
White House aides and Democrats objected that the president's lawyers need time to examine 55,000 pages of documents in the possession of House prosecutors and the independent counsel before the depositions.
House Judiciary Committee Democrats have looked at those documents and have hinted that they contain no bombshell revelations for or against the president.
But under rules adopted by the House, committee Democrats have not been allowed to debrief White House lawyers or to discuss the documents' contents.
"We believe that it's a fundamental issue of fairness that the accused gets access to the same material that the prosecution gets," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman.
"This is like blindfolding us and asking the president's defenders to go into a process knowing far less than what the prosecution knows."
Publicly, Senate Democrats have stood behind the White House's demands to allow time for them to examine secret material before the depositions.
Privately, they are growing weary of the trial and are willing to end it by Feb. 12.
A senior Democratic leadership aide said yesterday that Democrats had proposed allowing White House lawyers to examine documents through the weekend.
That would also allow Jordan to return from Switzerland and Lewinsky to return from Los Angeles.
Depositions are expected to begin over the weekend and conclude Monday. Videotapes would be kept in a room where senators could review them.
White House lawyers would then be allowed to call witnesses and search for favorable evidence. If they declined to do so, final votes would be cast Feb. 12.
Craig, the White House lawyer, signaled that he could accept such a deal if Senate Republicans and Democrats agree on it.
"We remain convinced that the national interest is best served by ending the process in a way that is fair, speedy and bipartisan so all of us can return to the vital business of the United States," Craig said.
The president will be speaking today at a Senate memorial service for Lawton Chiles, a former Florida senator and governor.