Washington, 28 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With two quick votes Wednesday, the U.S. Senate agreed to press ahead with the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, which means the trial could last at least one more week and possibly two.
By identical votes of 56-to-44, the 100-member Senate first rejected a motion offered by the Democrats to dismiss the charges against the president. Then, the senators approved a Republican Party motion to seek the testimony of three witnesses.
The outcome of the voting was never in doubt. The surprise, however, came when Senator Russell Feingold of the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, defected to the Republican side on both votes. Feingold has a reputation for being loyal to the president. He did not appear before reporters after the Senate recessed the trial, but he did issue a statement explaining his vote.
Feingold said he joined Republicans because he believed dismissing the case would "improperly short-circuit the case" before the prosecutors from the House of Representatives could examine witnesses. But he also said his votes should not be taken to mean he had decided to convict Clinton. Said Feingold, "I have not reached a decision on that question."
The 435-member House, which is dominated by the Republican Party, voted in December to impeach, or bring charges, against Clinton. The charges stemmed from an investigation of an affair Clinton had with a former White House employee named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton admitted he had what he called an improper relationship with her but denies the charges of illegal acts. He is a Democrat and contends the entire process is a partisan effort to drive him from office.
Once the House impeaches a president, the Senate must hold a trial. The prosecutors are selected from the House Judiciary Committee. Clinton was defended by private attorneys. The trial started three weeks ago. Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for a conviction, which could lead to Clinton's removal from office.
There are still few who believe that 67 senators would vote to convict Clinton. The majority of the Democrats in the Senate contend that the House prosecutors have failed to prove their case and many have questioned the need to bring in witnesses. The three witnesses are Vernon Jordan, an influential civil rights leader and close friend of Clinton, Sydney Blumenthal, a former journalist who is now a White House adviser and Monica Lewinsky.
All three have already given sworn testimony to investigators who prepared the charges against Clinton. The leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, said it was pointless to question the witnesses again.
He told reporters:
"Forty-four senators have now voted to dismiss the Articles of Impeachment. The president will not be removed from office. For the good of the country, and in keeping with the Constitution, it is now time to end this trial. It is time to move on.
"Each senator who voted to dismiss can speak for himself or herself, but we are here not to protect the president of the United States, we were here to protect the Constitution and we have done so faithfully and fully.
"My belief is that the House has not shown that the president has committed crimes alleged in the articles. My belief is that these articles never contained impeachable offenses. The impeachment process has been abused by a partisan effort and we should bring it now to a close. "The president's behavior was indefensible, not impeachable. The president should not and will not be removed from office. The president should and will receive sanction and rebuke. I will strongly support a resolution of censure, and then we as a nation must move on with the business of the country."
After the votes, Senators recessed to discuss in private how to proceed. Republicans were pressing a plan that could end the proceeding within 10 days if the White House did not seek witnesses of its own. Democrats, who a pressing for a motion to censure the president as an alternative to conviction, have offered their own plan and Daschle predicted "we can achieve some compromise procedurally."
The votes authorized the House prosecutors to question Lewinsky, Blumenthal and Jordan about the president's alleged efforts to conceal his affair with Lewinsky. The indications are that the prosecutors will meet privately with each witness over the weekend, videotape their statements and record them as sworn testimony called a deposition. However, after the depositions, House prosecutors would like to call the witnesses live into the Senate, a move the White House opposes.
The White House said it was concerned that Republicans were trying to "put a blindfold on us" with their accelerated plan. White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart told reporters the entire process is unfair to the president.
He said: "... and we believe that it's a fundamental issue of fairness that the accused gets a right to, and access to, the same material that the prosecution gets. We will make that case; we will continue to make that case. We've made it on the floor of the Senate, I've made it from here. If the Senate decides to move forward in a way that's fundamentally unfair, then I think they'll have to live with the characterization that the House had to live with when they moved forward in a way that fundamentally unfair to the president."