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Senate OKs GOP Rules for Deposing Trial Witnesses

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Senate adopted Republican-crafted procedures Thursday for taking depositions from witnesses in President Clinton’s impeachment trial that could allow public broadcast of the videotaped testimony and bring the case to a close as early as Feb. 12.

Approval of procedures for the remainder of the trial came on a straight party-line vote of 54 to 44 after Republicans defeated a Democratic bid to set tighter rules for the depositions, including a ban on public release of the videotaped testimony. Also defeated was a Democratic proposal for an immediate vote on the impeachment charges to end the trial.

The dispute over the taped depositions centered on Democratic objections to the prospect of widespread viewing of the testimony of Monica S. Lewinsky, one of the three witnesses who will be questioned next week.

Many Democrats are fearful that vivid television images of the young woman discussing her affair with Clinton, which lies at the heart of the impeachment case, could stain the Senate’s dignity and further embarrass the president.

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Republicans decided to push through their own proposal after a marathon 24-hour negotiation failed to break an impasse with Democrats over the rules and how firm to be about a target date to close the trial.

In a last-minute concession, Republicans agreed to give Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) joint authority to decide whether to call additional witnesses.

That veto authority for Daschle could prove critical if House prosecutors seek to expand the case later based on evidence uncovered during the depositions. Democrats had feared that they would have no power to block more witnesses.

Thursday’s Senate action was expected to pave the way for lawyers to take depositions of Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal from Monday through Wednesday and for senators to review the videotapes next week.

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The Senate would then resume the trial next Thursday, with the aim of voting on the final articles of impeachment, and ending the trial once and for all, on Feb. 12.

Although the votes Thursday were strictly along party lines, Daschle sought to play down any suggestion that the Senate had abandoned cooperation between the two parties.

“We simply couldn’t bring this matter to a successful bipartisan conclusion,” he told a press conference after the vote. He said that he appreciated Lott’s willingness to take Democrats’ concerns into account.

Lott also sought to deflect criticism that Republicans had suddenly turned partisan. “Sometimes you have to vote along party lines, but I think the main thing is how we’re communicating.”

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The decision on whether to make the videotapes--or portions of them--public would be made by the full Senate in a series of votes after senators privately review the tapes and transcripts of the depositions.

Democrats are fearful that vivid television images of testimony involving salacious details of Lewinsky’s relationship with the president--run repeatedly by the networks--could harm the dignity of the Senate.

“We don’t need salacious material,” Daschle told reporters later. “We don’t need to hear Monica Lewinsky or anyone else talking about these matters, no matter what form.”

But Lott dismissed such possibilities as unlikely. While Republicans clearly have enough votes to force the issue, he insisted, they have no desire to make public any graphic testimony.

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There also were differences over other issues:

Democrats wanted a firm date for closing the trial, with no opportunity for House managers to introduce new evidence that might expand the scope of the case.

They also wanted to block a motion that the GOP is considering, which would declare as a “finding of fact” that Clinton both lied and obstructed justice as a prelude to acquitting him of the impeachment articles.

Although the procedure adopted on Thursday opens the door for Republicans to press their motion, Lott said that Republicans had not yet decided whether the plan would be permitted by the Constitution.

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The Senate legal counsel said earlier this week that, while such a motion would be unprecedented, it would not be illegal. He said that it would be up to each senator to decide whether to support it.

But Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who opposes the plan, said it was “questionable whether it comes within the confines of the Constitution.”

In effect, the trial will recess over the next several days while House managers--and White House counsel--privately question the three witnesses whose depositions were authorized on a virtual party-line vote Wednesday.

Each side will be limited to four hours of questioning per witness, with a senator from each party present to resolve any procedural disputes. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will not attend the sessions.

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Tentatively, the Senate has decided to schedule the questioning of Lewinsky on Monday. The order for Jordan and Blumenthal has not been set.

Under the resolution, witnesses must answer all questions unless they can claim that their answers might incriminate them or would violate the attorney-client privilege.

Beginning Tuesday, senators would be able to review the depositions privately--either by watching them on videotape or reading a transcript--as soon as they have been completed. But they could not make them public.

The Senate would go back into session Thursday to consider any new motions--either from House managers or White House lawyers--on whether to admit the depositions into evidence, to allow the three witnesses to testify in person before the Senate or to seek to question more witnesses.

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The White House would then be able to ask that the Senate allow Clinton’s attorneys to call witnesses of its own, although there is no indication yet that they will want to do so.

Barring further delays, the Senate would move to final arguments late next week and then to a vote on whether to open its deliberations to the public.

At that point, Republicans would be able to bring up their “finding of fact” resolution, which would require only a simple majority of 51 votes for passage.

The goal of the procedure is for the final votes on the articles of impeachment--which charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice--to come no later than noon on Feb. 12. Lott, however, acknowledged that changed circumstance--such as the depositions producing “something really startling"--could cause the trial to last longer.

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Under the Constitution, it takes a two-thirds majority of 67 of the 100 senators to convict the president and remove him from office.

The possibility of that occurring seemed to end Wednesday when a Democratic motion to dismiss the case was defeated, 56 to 44. Although the motion lost, Democrats noted that it showed that House prosecutors are far short of the two-thirds majority.

The White House reacted sharply to Thursday’s action, denouncing Republicans for having abandoned bipartisanship for the tough tactics used by the House.

One White House official who followed the wrangling on television complained that Republican senators are pursuing a lost cause.

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“They are like actors on those doctor shows who keep pounding on the chest of the patient after he’s long dead,” he said. “I keep waiting for the kindly older doctor to come in and . . . say it’s over.”

While the Senate hashed out its procedural differences, Clinton visited Capitol Hill to attend a memorial service for Lawton Chiles, the Florida governor and former U.S. senator who died Dec. 12.

Clinton did not allude to his trial or the political divisions that it has engendered. Chiles’ daughter, Tandy Chiles Barrett, made a clear reference to the furor in thanking the gathering on behalf of her family.

To a crowd that included First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a member of the House prosecution team, Barrett urged senators to “sow mercy, so that God can then bestow upon you his harvest of mercy.”

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Two senators missed Thursday’s votes--Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who rushed home to be with his ailing father, and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has been ill with an inflamed gallbladder.

And as was the case in Wednesday’s votes, the only senator to stray from the partisan divide Thursday was Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). He joined Republicans in opposing the motion for an immediate vote on the impeachment articles, causing it to lose by a 55-43 count.

Times staff writers Janet Hook, Edwin Chen, Elizabeth Shogren, James Gerstenzang and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this story.


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