Key Senator to Move to End Clinton’s Trial
The impeachment case against President Clinton appeared to lose significant ground Friday when influential Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) revealed he will move for its dismissal, even as the trial entered a question-and-answer phase in which senators queried prosecutors and the defense about their opening arguments.
In another potential blow to the prosecution effort, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled his own plan for ending the case quickly. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said that, with any vote to remove Clinton unlikely to get the required two-thirds majority, the trial should adjourn after a small number of witnesses are deposed and the House impeachment vote of Clinton should be cited by the Senate as the “highest form of censure for these despicable acts.”
The developments highlighted a day in which the Senate was aswarm with informal discussions among members of both parties about how to wrap up or proceed with a case that for many has become increasingly wearisome.
Although the current betting is that Byrd’s motion to dismiss will die on a party-line vote Monday, the proposal put the Republican House prosecution team further on the defensive. In his announcement, Byrd also came out against calling witnesses and said that continuing the trial would only unnecessarily drag out the saga of Clinton’s affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and the impeachment articles it spawned.
Seeking to advance their case for calling witnesses, the House prosecutors made an eleventh-hour request to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr asking him to force Lewinsky, as part of her immunity agreement with him, to provide them with more information about her relationship with Clinton.
Lewinsky’s attorneys rejected the bid, and U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson said she would rule this weekend on whether the prosecutors could debrief Lewinsky.
Republicans had hoped to win support from Byrd, who holds sway as the unofficial guardian of the Senate’s prerogatives, not only to continue the trial with witnesses but also for Clinton’s ouster. Byrd recently said his vote on the charges against Clinton could go either way.
Such backing from Byrd was important to Republicans as a linchpin in attracting other Democratic support and lifting the impeachment case above the stark partisan rancor that surrounded it in the House.
Byrd dashed those hopes in his statement, saying: “Lengthening this trial will only prolong and deepen the divisive, bitter and polarizing effect that this sorry affair has visited upon our nation.”
Hatch, the Judiciary Committee chairman, suggested that both parties conduct a caucus count of their senators to determine if, as virtually all involved in the case assume, there are not 67 votes to remove Clinton from office.
If that is the case, he said, “then we should do the very smart constitutional thing and that is adjourn with langauge that we acknowledge the impeachment vote of the House, we acknowledge that we don’t have the chance of having 67 votes for conviction and we acknowledge that the impeachment vote in the House is the highest form of censure of these despicable acts.”
Byrd, Hatch Ideas Are Denounced
Several other Republican senators quickly denounced both the Byrd and Hatch suggestions, saying the trial must go forward with witnesses and not be abruptly brought to an end.
“I believe this trial will go the distance,” Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) said.
Republican senators plan to caucus today before the start of another question-and-answer session, and the various plans for short-circuiting the case are expected to come up.
The manager of the House prosecution team, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), made his pitch against such efforts during Friday’s question-and-answer session.
After the Byrd proposal had surfaced during a break, a question from Republican senators was directed at Hyde.
In arguing against it, he said, “I know--oh, do I know--what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body. But we’re a constitutional annoyance, and I remind you of that fact.”
Earlier in the day, Hyde released a letter in which he formally asked the Senate to invite Clinton to testify on his own behalf. “Because the president is the only individual with knowledge of almost every material fact relevant to the trial, the House believes that his testimony could greatly help to expeditiously and fairly bring this matter to a close.”
The request was widely seen as a sign that the momentum in the case had shifted against the House prosecutors. And the White House quickly nixed the idea.
“The president has already testified as part of the investigation [by Starr], said Jim Kennedy, spokesman for the White House counsel’s office.
He said additional testimony “would only have the effect of prolonging the trial indefinitely.”
Direction of Trial May Be Debated
Also earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said senators may consider holding another bipartisan meeting of the entire Senate to discuss where the trial goes. Lott convened a similar session earlier this month to work out the details of the case’s first phases.
Inside the chamber on Friday, the House prosecution team and Clinton’s lawyers squared off in answering exactly 50 written questions from senators that were passed up to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
For the most part, the senators used the process to allow one side or the other to essentially bolster previous arguments or rebut contentions made by the opposition. It appeared few new points were scored by either the prosecutors or the defense team.
It was clear from the outset that Republican senators had previewed many of their questions with the House managers, and that Democratic senators had done the same for the Clinton attorneys.
For example, some of the managers stepped to the microphone with typewritten answers that they read to the Senate; Clinton lawyers, meanwhile, quickly hoisted up large charts that seemed amazingly on point.
During a break in proceedings, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) laughingly called it “stylized Ping-Pong.”
The question-and-answer period drew occasional bursts of laughter, including a moment when Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) stood to object to one question.
Hutchinson suddenly blanked, and then asked the chief justice if he even had the right to object.
Rehnquist seemed dumbfounded. He leaned over to the Senate parliamentarian. They conferred. Then the chief justice told Hutchinson he could not object.
Various questions sparked arguments between the House managers and Clinton’s lawyers over whether the two articles of impeachment alleging perjury and obstruction of justice were vague. The White House lawyers said they were; the House managers said they were patterned after the Watergate impeachment articles against President Nixon and that there was no reason for confusion.
Other questions sparked additional debate over the need for witnesses. The White House said witnesses would provide nothing new, given that Starr’s grand jury had gathered reams of testimony. But the House managers said witnesses were essential to clarify contradictions over facts in the case.
Meanwhile, the real action was being played out beyond the chamber’s double doors. The first stunner came when Senate aides passed out a one-page press release in the press gallery as the question-and-answer session continued.
It was on Byrd’s letterhead, and it contained his announcement that he will file a formal motion of dismissal in the case on Monday.
“I plan to make this motion not because I believe that the president did no wrong,” Byrd said. “In fact, I think he has caused his family, his friends and this nation great pain. I believe that he has weakened the already fragile public trust that has been placed in his care.”
But he said that the two-thirds votes necessary for conviction “are not there and they are not likely to develop.”
He added that hearing from witnesses--an issue that has loomed as a crucial decision in the trial--will not “add anything of consequence to this process” and “will only foster more of the same hallway press conferences and battle of press releases that are contributing to the division of our parties and our nation.”
A respected senior lawmaker who tends not to be partisan, Byrd--who appeared in the chamber Friday with his hand bandaged after burning it while trying to put out a fire--has been especially critical of Clinton throughout the impeachment drama. He sternly warned the White House against trying to “tamper with the jury” to influence the Senate.
When Clinton held a defiant press conference with Democrats on the White House lawn on Dec. 19, immediately following the vote by the full House approving the two articles of impeachment, Byrd slammed it as “an egregious display of shameless arrogance.”
Thus, his statement Friday had great impact.
“Byrd carries a special significance,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “It does show momentum toward a prompt resolution.”
Still, with Republicans controlling the Senate by a 55-45 majority, the motion is likely to fail.
During the next break in the proceedings, senators quickly reacted out in the hallways to Byrd’s plan.
Democrats were hopeful. “We believe that the vote to dismiss is a vote on the articles,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “I believe that now is the time. I’m increasingly optimistic.”
Republicans were none too happy.
“I think the great defender of Senate procedures has lost his way,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). “Here’s a man who talks about the honor of the Senate and he wants to short-circuit” the process.
Gramm Predicts Plan’s Defeat
Gramm of Texas said: “I believe it will be defeated. . . . We have a constitutional duty to see this through, as inconvenient as it may be, as tiring as it may be, as trying as it may be.”
House managers fumed. “I would prefer that he not do that,” Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) said. “I would ask Sen. Byrd and all senators to wait until the proceedings are over.”
Added an aide to a prominent conservative Republican: “We are dumbfounded. It was always thought that Byrd would be the stickler for rules and constitutional responsibility. This has thrown a lot of people off because he was the touchstone for everybody.”
Back in the chamber, Hyde quickly was posed the question from Republican senators, asking him to respond to Byrd’s plan to move for dismissal.
“I think by dismissing the articles of impeachment before you have a complete trial, you are sending a terrible message to the people of the country,” Hyde said, referring to several pages of hastily scribbled notes.
“You’re saying, I guess, perjury is OK if it’s about sex. Obstruction is OK, even though it is an effort to deny a citizen her right to a fair trial.”
Barr Backs Moving Ahead
Back outside the chamber, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) defended the case for going forward. “This is very much alive,” he said.
He dismissed talk that the momentum had shifted dramatically in the White House’s favor.
“That’s precisely what the opponents of impeachment were telling us right up until the impeachment vote in the House,” he scoffed.
But other managers were less optimistic.
Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) said conviction seems unlikely because partisanship would guide the Democrats.
Rogan said the case was always a longshot. “The dynamic has never been on our side, starting with the polls,” he said.
Times staff writers Janet Hook, Marc Lacey, Art Pine and Heidi Sherman contributed to this story.
Live video coverage of the Senate impeachment trial continues today on The Times’ Web site:
* MANAGERS ASSAILED: House managers’ move to gain Lewinsky’s cooperation as a witness is attacked. A19
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What Happens Next
Impeachment trial procedures are in place once the question period ends today. Here’s what follows, in the order it is expected to occur beginning Monday:
* Two-hour debate by House managers and defense on motion to dismiss
* Closed session debate by Senate on dismissal
* Open session debate on witness lists
* Closed session deliberation on witness lists
* Open vote on motion to dismiss
* If it fails, an open vote on witness lists
* Any witnesses approved would appear under oath for private depositions
* Based on deposition testimony, Senate would decide which witnesses should testify in the Senate chamber