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Washington Journal: Congress, White House Prepare For Trial

Washington, 13 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow (Thursday) President Bill Clinton will put the fate of his presidency in the hands of the 91 men and nine women who make up the Senate of the United States.

Clinton's defenders at the White House continued to insist Tuesday that the charges against Clinton are weak and that the case against him is filled with exaggeration and overblown rhetoric.

Nevertheless, the 100 senators will sit as the President's jury, and they will decide whether Clinton is guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice. Conviction on those charges by a two-thirds majority of the Senate could force Clinton from office.

There is no indication of exactly how long the trial will last. The Senate has agreed on procedures that might bring the trial to a conclusion late next week.

The start of the trial comes almost exactly one year after an alleged sex scandal involving Clinton and a former unpaid White House assistant exploded in headlines across the country and around the world. The charges that Clinton committed perjury -- that is, he lied under oath -- and obstructed justice -- meaning he allegedly used the power of his office to block an investigation of his conduct -- first made the national news on January 12th.

The accusations were the focus of an investigation by an independent government prosecutor named Kenneth Starr, who had already been appointed to look into other allegations of wrongdoing at the White House.

Clinton emphatically denied that he had a sexual relationship with the woman, Monica Lewinsky. He also denied that he ever told anyone to lie while under legal obligation to tell the truth. The investigation continued however, and in August, Clinton made a nationally televised announcement in which he conceded that he had what he called an improper relationship with Lewinsky. But he also denied that he committed perjury or any other crimes, and, while he said he was very sorry for his personal conduct, he also denounced the investigation as an unwarranted intrusion into his personal life.

When Starr finished his investigation, he presented his report to the U.S. House of Representatives, which has the sole constitutional power to impeach, or bring charges, against a president. The House is dominated by the Republican Party. Clinton is a member of the Democratic Party. He has contended all along that the investigation is an effort by the Republicans to drive him from office.

On December 19th, the House voted -- almost exactly along party lines -- to approve two articles of impeachment against Clinton. Two other charges were rejected. Under the U.S. Constitution, once the House has voted impeachment, the Senate must conduct a trial. There has been only one other trial of a president in American history. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was acquitted

The Chief Justice of the U.S., William Rehnquist, will preside over the trial. In the first phase, starting tomorrow, 13 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee will start the presentation of the case against Clinton. The president is being defended by a team of his own personal counselors. Clinton does not have to attend and the White House said again on Tuesday that Clinton will not go to the Senate chamber.

The House delegation members are called "managers" for the trial. They will have 24 hours to present the case. It is anticipated that trial sessions will last about eight hours, so the presentation could be finished on Saturday.

There is no Sunday session. On Monday, Clinton's lawyers -- he has 11 in all -- could begin their defense. They will also have 24 hours. The senators will then have 16 hours to pose questions, which they must submit in writing.

When the Senate completes questions, motions to dismiss the case or motions to call witnesses or request evidence not in the public record will be heard and debated. Senator Robert Torricelli, a Democrat from the state of New Jersey, has promised to offer a motion to dismiss the case.

If it fails, the Senate will vote on any motions to present witnesses. If the Senate agrees to allow either the House prosecutors or the president's legal team to call witnesses, the witnesses will first be questioned in private. The Senate would decide after depositions which witnesses could testify in the trial.

After any witness testimony, the Senate would deliberate and then vote on the articles of impeachment.

Under Senate rules approved for the Jackson trial, the procedure would allow open coverage for arguments and other trial proceedings, including any witness testimony, but not for debates on motions or deliberations on the final verdict. If it should come to an actual vote on conviction, however, the balloting would be in a public session.

Two Democratic senators, Thomas Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, told reporters on Monday they will propose a change in the rules to permit full coverage of all debates and deliberations.

The White House again ridiculed the House case against the president. Spokesman Joe Lockhart said Tuesday that:

"As far as the House brief, I think, as I told you this morning, that, you know, it's a -- it is at times a hallmark of what's a weak factual and constitutional case that the allegations continue to shift and that the rhetoric continues to be overblown. And I think those are the two things that come out of that document. We have new bundling and interpretations of the allegations against the president at this late date. I think, as someone who's trying to defend themselves, you have a certain point where you should understand what the charges are, and where you should understand how they are put together and what the basis of them. And I think we saw some shifting in the document just yesterday. "