House prosecutors questioned Monica S. Lewinsky behind closed doors Sunday as the Senate moved toward a crucial decision on whether to summon the former intern and other potential witnesses in President Clinton’s impeachment trial or dismiss the charges entirely.
The move by the House impeachment managers was part of a last-ditch effort to counter growing sentiment in the Senate to end the trial quickly. Prosecutors must convince lawmakers this week of the need to call witnesses or they risk seeing the trial cut short and the case discarded.
Predictably, the two sides proffered sharply differing assessments of the meeting.
The three-member House team emerged from a two-hour session with Lewinsky saying they had concluded she is “impressive” and “personable” and “would be a very helpful witness” if she were called. They declined to divulge details of the talks, held in a room at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
A few minutes later, Lewinsky’s lawyer Plato Cacheris told reporters that, although his client was “forthright” and “truthful,” she “added nothing to the record that is already sitting before the Senate right now.”
He asserted that it is unnecessary to call her as a witness.
The flurry of activity set the stage for a major push by House managers today to salvage their case before an increasingly skeptical Senate, as lawmakers move toward a series of critical votes expected to make or break the impeachment effort.
The Senate is scheduled to cast votes--possibly as early as today on motions to decide whether to dismiss the case or authorize the House managers and White House lawyers to call witnesses, which could prolong the trial for weeks.
If the House managers cannot win enough votes to keep the trial going, the Senate may vote soon on whether to convict Clinton and remove him from office or acquit him. Both sides concede the Republicans don’t have the 67 votes they would need to oust Clinton.
During Sunday’s session with Lewinsky, the three House managers--Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.)--were accompanied by House Judiciary Committee counsel David Schippers and Michael Emmick, a lawyer in the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
The unusual session was conducted in the $5,000-a-night Presidential Suite at the Mayflower, a few blocks from the White House.
Participants said the questions that the three congressmen posed were “nothing salacious” and appeared designed to get Lewinsky to elaborate on incidents in which Clinton might have obstructed justice by advising her to swear that the two never had an affair.
Lewinsky had denied such allegations in previous testimony.
The House managers said they intend to interview the president’s secretary Betty Currie and his close friend and advisor Vernon E. Jordan Jr. as potential witnesses and also may call White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and top Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal.
There were reports that Republican aides or investigators had talked Sunday to Dick Morris, who was involved in a sex scandal when he was an advisor to Clinton, but no details were available.
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) issued a statement criticizing the decision by the White House to back away from an offer by presidential counsel Gregory Craig to have Clinton answer written questions posed by senators.
Although Craig raised the offer during a floor speech Saturday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart later told reporters that the president’s lawyers, not Clinton, as Craig had implied, would answer questions from senators.
Lott said he will write Clinton again “in hopes that [he] will respond to senators’ interrogatories.”
The controversy over interviewing Lewinsky shattered the bipartisan aura that had surrounded the Senate’s handling of the 3-week-old trial and threw the proceeding into a heightened state of uncertainty.
As recently as Friday, there had been a growing consensus among senators of both parties that it was time to hammer out an “exit strategy” that would let lawmakers vote to end the trial without letting Clinton off the hook.
Lawmakers concede that Republicans are unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority required to convict the president. Many are becoming impatient to put the whole proceeding behind them.
However, the prosecutors’ move to interview Lewinsky even before the Senate decided whether it wanted to consider witnesses--combined with an announcement by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) that he would seek today to dismiss the entire case--revived partisan bitterness.
Democrats said the witnesses are unnecessary and assailed the prosecutors’ move as an effort to usurp the Senate’s prerogative of deciding whether to call witnesses. They also accused House counsel of going on a “fishing expedition” to find new evidence.
Meanwhile, Republicans charged that Byrd’s announcement that he will propose a motion to dismiss the case effectively circumvented a bipartisan agreement that the two parties had hammered out two weeks ago.
Lott will summon Republicans to a caucus session this morning to devise a proposal on how to proceed over the next several days. “Everything is up in the air” until then, a top Senate aide said.
If the Republicans--and later the Democrats--can agree on such a procedure, the Senate will begin consideration of the Byrd proposal and a second resolution that would authorize the House managers and the president’s counsel to begin deposing witnesses.
Although Byrd’s proposal was expected to be defeated quickly by the 55-member Republican majority, it was unclear whether GOP leaders would be able to garner enough support to go ahead with the House managers’ request to begin deposing witnesses.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), for example, told viewers on ABC-TV’s “This Week” program that the House managers’ appeal for permission to call witnesses “hasn’t swayed me yet.
“If it’s not going to add something to the trial, something that would change the whole dynamics, I say let’s move on. I personally would rather vote on the ‘guilty or not guilty,’ up or down.”
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), appearing on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” expressed similar reservations. “I have [not yet] been convinced at this point that we should have witnesses. We want to make sure that it doesn’t turn out to be the ‘Jerry Springer’ show.”
Moreover, it was not even clear precisely when during the coming week the votes would occur. Even with an agreement on procedure, the Senate may have to put off its balloting if some senators still want to ask questions of House managers and White House lawyers.
An earlier effort by Lott to quash debate among senators came under fire from Democrats, forcing the majority leader to abandon the proposal hours after he floated it.
The senators’ questioning of counsel for the two opposing sides was supposed to end Saturday, but, at adjournment, Lott said there would be time for more questions today. And late Sunday, there were some lawmakers who said they want to ask follow-up questions.
Under existing rules, the Senate also agreed to allot a full eight hours for House managers and White House lawyers to make their cases for and against the motions to dismiss or call witnesses.
As a result, the actual voting may not come until late Tuesday or even Wednesday.
If the Senate does vote to authorize the House managers to begin deposing witnesses, it will not guarantee that they actually will be called.
The depositions would be designed to determine what new information the witnesses might be able to provide. Senators then would have to vote again on whether the deposition justified calling each person as a witness.
Some senators held out hope that the two parties could once again craft a compromise by meeting behind closed doors, as they did just over two weeks ago when they agreed unanimously on a procedural plan for the opening phase.
“I don’t think the fix is in, but I think at some point this week cooler heads are going to prevail,” Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) said.
The Senate was scheduled to resume its deliberations at 10 a.m. PST today to consider the motion to dismiss the case. That presumably would be followed within a few days by another vote on whether to call specific witnesses, which could prolong the trial. If the Senate rejected such calls for witnesses, it would then have to vote on the impeachment articles themselves.
Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Questions for Lewinsky
House prosecutors came to their informal meeting with Monica S. Lewinsky looking to resolve the following clashes between her testimony and that of others:
* GIFTS: Lewinsky said Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie initiated the retrieval of gifts that Clinton had given her, an argument prosecutors have used to bolster their case that Clinton obstructed justice by trying to hide the gifts. Currie said Lewinsky suggested the return of the gifts. Also, Lewinsky said Clinton was noncommittal when she talked to him about returning subpoenaed gifts. Clinton testified that he had told her that if she was asked for the gifts, she should turn them over.
* PRESSURE OR PROMISES: The White House defense team cited Lewinsky’s testimony that “no one ever asked me to lie, and I was never promised a job for my silence.” Prosecutors point out she also said Clinton assumed she would lie in her testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones case to hide the affair.
* JORDAN: Lewinsky testified that she and Clinton advisor Vernon E. Jordan Jr. had discussed aspects of the affair. Jordan testified that they did not discuss the affair.
* STALKING: House manager Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he wanted to ask Lewinsky about reported statements by the president that she stalked him and he never touched her.
Source: Associated Press