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Washington Journal: First Phase Of Clinton Trial Closing

Washington, 22 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S. senators posing questions to both the defense and the prosecution, the first phase of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton is drawing to a close.

It's impossible to predict exactly what will happen next, but the weight of opinion in Washington sides with the belief that the trial will be continued beyond Monday and that witnesses probably will be summoned to testify in person or to give sworn statements called depositions.

Before the trial started, the Senate agreed to a period of 16 hours during which they could pose questions in writing to both the president's defenders and the prosecutors. That segment of the first impeachment trial of a U.S. president in 130 years begins at 7 pm Prague time today.

On Thursday, the president's defenders concluded the presentation of their case.

The presiding judge, U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, will read the questions. Senate leaders said Thursday that they might not use all of the allotted 16 hours and that they could conclude the question period today, but if they do not, they would reconvene tomorrow (Saturday) at 7 pm Prague time.

Clinton was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 19. The House approved two charges -- called articles of impeachment. One accuses the president of committing perjury, the other charges him with obstructing justice. He's alleged to have committed both crimes in an effort to conceal an adulterous affair.

The president had admitted he had what he called an improper relationship with a former White House employee named Monica Lewinsky, but the president says he did not commit any crimes. He says the entire impeachment controversy is the product of partisan politics and an effort by his opponents to force him from office.

Clinton is a Democrat. The articles of impeachment were approved overwhelmingly by the Republican Party majority that controls the House.

While Clinton's lawyers methodically presented the case for the president on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- asserting that both the charges against the president had no merit and that they should be dismissed -- the president summoned an old friend and close political ally to deliver the summation Clinton hopes will win the Senate to his side.

Former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers, who retired last year after serving 24 years, asked his old colleagues to end what he called the nightmare of the impeachment proceedings for the good of the American people.

Bumpers is from Clinton's home state of Arkansas and, like Clinton, was also a governor of that southern state. He said, however, that he did not come as Clinton's friend, but because of his love for the U.S. Constitution and for the Senate.

"So if Bill Clinton the man, Bill Clinton the friend, were the issue here, I'm quite sure I would not be doing this. But it is the weight of history on all of us and it is my reverence for that great document, and you've heard me rail about it for 24 years, that we call our constitution, the most sacred document to me next to the Holy Bible. These proceedings go right to the heart of our constitution where it deals with impeachment. The part that provides the greatest punishment for just about anybody, the president, even though the framers (of the constitution) said 'we're putting this in to protect the public, not to punish the president.'"

"Colleagues, you have such an awesome responsibility."

Bumpers said Clinton's personal behavior was terrible and immoral, but not enough to force him from office. He said this effort to remove the president poses a threat to the nation.

"Well colleagues I have heard so many adjectives to describe this gathering and these proceedings: historic, memorable, unprecedented, awesome. All of those words, all of those descriptions are apt, and to those, I would add the word dangerous: dangerous not only for the reasons I just stated but because it's dangerous to the political process and it's dangerous to the unique mix of pure democracy and republican government Madison and his colleagues so brilliantly crafted and which has sustained us for 210 years."

When a president is impeached by the House, the Senate then sits as a court of impeachment with the 100 senators also acting as jurors who will decide the case. If two-thirds of the Senate votes for a conviction on either charge, then Clinton could be forced to resign. The Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but no one believes 67 senators would find Clinton guilty of either charge.

What the Democrats hope for is an end to the trial on Monday with a vote to approve a motion to dismiss both charges. Democrats said Thursday they expected Minority leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota would make the formal proposal. Approval of such a motion would require only 51 votes.

However, a number of senators from both parties have been telling reporters this week that they do not believe the Democrats would prevail on a motion to dismiss the case so quickly. If the Democratic proposal is voted down, the Republicans are expected to make a proposal to take sworn depositions from witnesses or bring them in for live testimony on the Senate floor.

The delegation of prosecutors -- called managers -- from the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has said it wants to call Monica Lewinsky, the president's secretary Betty Currie and Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan, as well as White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal. Many Republican senators have publicly endorsed that request.

However, Republicans were reminded on Thursday of just how unpopular the impeachment trial is among the public. Public opinion surveys taken after Clinton delivered his annual message on the state of the nation to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday showed his job approval rating remained strong -- ranging from 66 percent to 76 percent in polls taken by the three major American television networks.