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Republicans Win Potentially Costly Victory on Witnesses

By Eric Pianin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

After a flurry of high pressure, closed door talks among Senate GOP leaders and the House Republican managers, Republicans appeared poised Tuesday to keep the impeachment trial of President Clinton going beyond this week and to depose witnesses including Monica S. Lewinsky.

But even as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other Republicans savor their tactical victory, the Republicans may have inadvertently contributed to the realization of their worst fear: that Clinton, in the end, will escape without any punishment at all.

On one hand, the Senate is about to make it more difficult for the House GOP managers to make their case that Clinton deserves to be removed from office by denying them far ranging latitude to call witnesses.

But in closing ranks around a plan to call only Lewinsky, presidential confidante Vernon Jordan and White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal, Republicans have also put at risk the bipartisan comity that has characterized the early stages of the trial and, some senators said, complicated efforts to adopt a resolution censuring the president for his conduct.

"We've been able to largely avoid partisan votes until now, but I'm skeptical," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters Tuesday. "I think on the vote on dismissal and on the vote on witnesses, it sounds as if the lines may be drawn. I hope that is not the case, but it may be."

But Republicans see their approach as a workable compromise that would keep their party intact, while assuring that both the House managers and the White House have a reasonable opportunity to flesh out their cases and resolve contradictions in grand jury testimony with live witnesses.

Reflecting the views of many Republicans, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) declared that if the House prosecutors were willing to narrow their witness list, "We ought to bend over backwards to give them what they want."

"All we're going to decide (today) is will be depose witnesses, and after that the Senate will decide whether to hear them live or just take videotape," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). "I see no reason it can't be done by this weekend."

From the beginning of the three week trial, the question of whether to call witnesses or to rely on the voluminous House impeachment record and grand jury testimony as the Democrats favor has threatened to split the Senate along partisan lines.

Nearly three weeks ago, senators essentially agreed to postpone that decision as a way of getting the trial launched on a bipartisan basis, but the moment of truth has now arrived with Wednesday's scheduled vote on whether to depose witnesses.

The vote was still too close to call, and senators were still speaking Tuesday night of some kind of compromise to keep bipartisanship going.

A spokesman for Lott said Tuesday that ``there are enough open minds right now'' to assure Senate approval of the House managers' request for three witnesses as well as their suggestion that the Senate invite Clinton to submit to a deposition. The managers should also be allowed to call some witnesses to flesh out their perjury and obstruction of justice charges.