Tight-lipped senators emerge from closed-door session
Motion to depose witnesses expected Tuesday
January 26, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, January 25) -- The Senate emerged from a rare closed-door session Monday after debating for nearly four hours on whether to dismiss impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against President Clinton.
The deliberations ended around 10 p.m. It was the first time since the trial began nearly two weeks ago that House prosecutors, White House counsel, television cameras, reporters and members of the public were barred from the proceedings.
The senators declined comment after the session.
"I am subject to expulsion if I divulge anything that is going on," said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), citing a rule that senators remain silent.
No vote will be taken on dismissal of the case -- which is expected to fail -- until after the senators hear arguments Tuesday on a motion to depose witnesses. The Senate is scheduled to convene at noon ET.
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Delivering the final argument of the day, lead prosecutor Henry Hyde characterized Clinton's trial as "a search for truth -- and it should not be trumped by a search for an exit strategy. It seems to me this motion elevates convenience over constitutional process."
"I don't think this sad, sad drama will end," Hyde said, echoing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's earlier prediction that the Republican majority will defeat the dismissal motion, introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia). "And we will never get it behind us until you vote up or down on the articles."
But Clinton attorney Nicole Seligman said the charges brought by the House were a vague "prosecutorial grab bag" and do not meet the Constitution's threshold for impeachable offenses as "high crimes or misdemeanors."
"The time to end this is now," she said.
Following hour-long presentations by both sides, the Senate voted down, by a 57-43 margin, a motion from Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) that would have opened the senators' debate on the motion to dismiss. Five Democrats, including Byrd, sided with 52 Republicans to keep the deliberations closed. Three Republicans favored opening the deliberations.
The senators planned to deliberate in secret until the "close of business" Monday, Lott said earlier. The majority leader also told reporters that Republicans have the necessary 51 votes to defeat the dismissal motion. "We're just trying to get to the truth. We're trying to have a fair process here, but one that gets us to a conclusion as soon as possible without rushing to judgment," Lott said.Arguments for and against a motion to call witnesses, requested by the House impeachment managers, will begin Tuesday, to be followed by Senate deliberation. Votes on the two motions are expected late Tuesday or early Wednesday, Lott said.
After multiple delays Monday afternoon as senators continued behind-the-scenes discussions on how to proceed with the impeachment trial, the session finally resumed to consider Byrd's motion "that the impeachment proceedings against William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States, be ... duly dismissed."
Rep. Charles Canady (R-Florida) led off the House managers' arguments against dismissal, urging the senators "not to depart from the Senate's well-established practice of fully considering cases of impeachment and rendering a judgment of either conviction or acquittal."
Dismissal, Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) said, "would be damaging to the Constitution because the Senate would fail to try the case. It would be harmful to the body politic because there's no resolution of the issues of the case. But most importantly, it would show willful blindness to the evidentiary record that has thus far been presented."
Supporting dismissal, Seligman insisted that Clinton presents no danger to the state. "The moment has arrived where the best interest of the nation, the wise prescription of the framers, and the failure of the managers' proof all point to dismissal," she said.
"Impeachment was never meant just to be another weapon in the arsenal of partisanship," said Seligman. "The constitutional standard for impeachment is not met here.
"The president did not obstruct justice. The president did not commit perjury. The president must not be removed. The facts don't permit it," she said.
Lott fired off a list of 10 questions to the president Monday about the Lewinsky case, despite renewed insistence from the White House that Clinton will not respond.
The letter, signed by Lott and nine other Senate Republicans, follows an apparent off-hand comment by White House counsel Gregory Craig during Saturday's defense presentation that the Senate could ask the president about certain matters if members requested.
Lott immediately seized on the comment and is now asking for the president to answer the questions under oath.
The inquiries seek to clarify the most critical disputes over the evidence. One questions reads: "Is everything you testified to in the Jones deposition true? If not, what did you testify that you believe is not truthful? Please begin your answer with a yes or no." (Full list of questions)
Earlier Monday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart made it clear that the president did not intend to answer the questions. "They should not send questions to the president," he said. "That is not called for in the Senate procedures."
During their morning caucus, Republicans rejected a plan that would have dropped the motion to dismiss, as well as a motion for witnesses, and wrapped up the trial by the end of the week.
With it unlikely there will ever be the 67 votes needed to convict Clinton, there have been calls from both sides of the aisle to find a way to end the trial as soon as possible.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) had suggested giving the House managers time to rebut the White House presentation, then both sides time for closing arguments and beginning Senate deliberations by midweek with a vote on acquittal or conviction by Friday.
Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) and Slade Gorton (R-Washington) floated the plan earlier. Lieberman described the plan as a "mutual withdrawal of forces." Lieberman said he and Gorton began talking about the plan over the weekend because they were concerned the trial process was becoming "much more confrontational and divided along party lines." Democratic senators also discussed the plan at their caucus meeting Monday.
Meanwhile, an informal GOP proposal that was gaining steam among the Republican conference to condemn Clinton's conduct before the Senate votes on articles of impeachment was criticized by Senate Democrats.
The proposal being floated by Senate Republicans would call for drafting a "finding of fact" -- a list of condemnations of presidential conduct that would go on the Senate record prior to the vote on the two articles of impeachment.
The idea behind that, said a GOP source said, is to "get condemnation on the record before acquittal, so the White House cannot run out and celebrate any acquittal vote as total exoneration."
In a key tactical decision, House prosecutors have agreed to "pare down" the witness list they are preparing for the Senate.
Sources in the managers' Monday meeting told CNN that Kathleen Willey, who alleges the president once made an unwanted sexual advance toward her, and the so-called "Jane Does," women alleged to have had past relationships with Clinton, have been removed from the list.
Also removed from consideration is former presidential adviser Dick Morris, who was interviewed by staff lawyers Sunday, at the same time three House managers were talking to Lewinsky.
"We have discussed the reality of what is going on at the Senate, that Republicans are talking about opposing witnesses," said one top House Judiciary Committee official. It was "agreed to pare down the list to the minimum in the hope the witness list will seem reasonable."
Still under discussion is just who will be on that pared-down list. Lewinsky and Clinton's secretary Betty Currie are likely to be on the more conservative version, while presidential friend Vernon Jordan, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal are other possibilities.
One of Lewinsky's attorneys, Jacob Stein, reiterated to reporters Monday that his client offered nothing new to the House prosecutors during their two-hour interview with her on Sunday.
"I think they wanted her there to see whether she has anything for them," Stein said. "Now that she hasn't given them anything, maybe that will be valuable in determining whether she will be called as a witness."
Lewinsky, who was ordered to undergo the interview, will stay in town until it is known whether she will have to give a deposition as a witness in the Senate trial, her lawyers said.
On Sunday, three of the managers -- Reps. Asa Hutchinson, Ed Bryant and Bill McCollum -- questioned Lewinsky at the posh Mayflower Hotel where she is staying. The managers characterized the session as "productive."
"We found her to be a very personable and impressive young woman, and we found that she might be a very helpful witness to the Senate if she's called," said McCollum.
In response to inquiries about who was footing the bill for Lewinsky's travel, Independent Counsel Ken Starr's office issued a statement saying the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC) "provided Ms. Lewinsky with a round-trip, coach airline ticket at government rate and a single room at the Mayflower Hotel pursuant to government travel regulations. Any other arrangements were neither made nor authorized by the OIC."
CNN's Dana Bash, John Bisney and Bob Franken contributed to this report.
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