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The Senate's Endgame Moves

January 29, 1999



The Senate trial of President Clinton on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges continues to proceed cautiously, one step at a time. Senators are concerned that they uphold their constitutional responsibilities, set no damaging precedents, and be fair to both the House prosecutors and the president.

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Wednesday's party-line votes confirmed what everyone has suspected for months: The Senate does not have the two-thirds vote necessary to remove Mr. Clinton from office.

But the trial isn't over yet. Senators voted to allow House prosecutors to depose three witnesses: Monica Lewinsky, presidential friend Vernon Jordan, and presidential adviser Sidney Blumenthal. This was the right thing to do. Senators have questions on the obstruction charges that these witnesses could help resolve.

The votes were a partial victory for House prosecutors; it kept their case alive and left open the possibility that they may still be able to call the three to the Senate floor for live testimony.

The White House team wants to avoid that at all costs. Their concern is that Miss Lewinsky on the witness stand might damage the president's case or simply erode Mr. Clinton's public-approval ratings. House managers apparently hope that she or another witness might do just that.

GOP senators rejected White House lawyer David Kendall's claim that calling witnesses would require the president's team to do weeks or months of legal discovery and investigation of the evidence collected by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. They believe the White House legal team knows what Messrs. Jordan and Blumenthal have to say. They may also suspect that since the Clinton lawyers worked closely with House Judiciary Committee Democrats when the case was in the lower chamber, Mr. Kendall has a good idea what the Starr materials contain.

But House managers have an uphill climb. Their witnesses are supportive of Clinton and hostile to the prosecutors. And because all Senate Republicans voted to depose witnesses, that doesn't mean they will agree to bring them to the floor. That will certainly be the next key vote.

At press time, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota were negotiating procedures for the depositions. Those may constrain the House managers more than they would like.

Now senators must work out how properly to end the trial. That should include an up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment. If, as expected, those articles fail, senators need to have ready a bipartisan censure resolution.

If the Senate continues to be guided by its renowned qualities of patience, calm deliberation, forebearance, and yet principled steadfastness, it and the country will emerge well from the pressures of this historic trial.