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Washington Journal: Impeachment Trial -- Is The End In Sight?

Washington, 4 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton returns to the floor of the Senate and public view today with all sides hoping that the end of the process is near.

The Senate is sitting as the court of impeachment and the 100 senators are also the jurors who will decide the issue. The trial is to reconvene at 1900 Prague time. The senators will determine what to do next, now that private testimony has been taken from three witnesses over the past three days.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton, meaning it brought charges against him, for perjury and obstruction of justice last month. The Senate's duty is to try the president on the charges. The case against the president was presented by a delegation from the House Judiciary Committee.

The President and his defenders have contended all along that the entire impeachment drama has been stage-managed by Clinton's political opponents who want him out of office. Clinton is a Democrat. The House and Senate are controlled by the Republican Party.

The impeachment charges contend Clinton lied while under oath, and used the power of his office to conceal his involvement with a former White House worker named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton has admitted he had an improper relationship with her, but he denies the charges against him.

The House prosecutors spent the past three days questioning witnesses behind closed doors. The sessions were recorded on video tape and representatives from the Senate observed. The witnesses included Lewinsky, Clinton friend and political adviser Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal.

The House prosecutors are expected to ask the Senate today to permit more questioning of the witnesses, but this time in front of the entire Senate. However, polls of the 55 Republican and 45 Democratic senators indicate the senators do not want to listen to any testimony and in fact want to conclude the trial.

It would take the votes of 67 senators to convict the president on either charge. No one believes that two-thirds of the Senate would vote a conviction. Some Republicans have suggested that a motion be made to formally accuse President Clinton of wrongdoing before ending the trial. This is called a "finding of fact."

This would be a formal declaration that Clinton "willfully provided false and misleading testimony," and engaged in a course of conduct designed to "alter, delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony" in a sexual harassment lawsuit that had been filed against him.

Neither part of the proposal states Clinton committed perjury or obstructed justice, as alleged in the articles of impeachment. But Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Olympia Snowe of Maine said the final disposition of the case should include a Senate recognition that Clinton committed wrongdoing -- even though there are not enough votes to remove him from office.

However, Senate Democrats made it clear Wednesday that they will oppose any attempt to simply declare the president guilty without actually voting on the charges.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle and other Democrats said any so-called "finding of fact" would be unconstitutional.

Senator Patrick Leahy of the northeastern state of Vermont was more blunt. He said each senator, "should have the courage to stand up and vote either to convict the president and remove him, or vote to keep him in office and not convict him."

The senator said: "This idea of a finding of fact or something else short of a final vote on the impeachment articles to me is a gutless way out. We ought to have the courage to either vote on the articles of impeachment, vote them up, or vote them down. That's what the Constitution requires."

At the White House, spokesman Joseph Lockhart said:

"I think there will be a certain sense of relief here at the White House, if this process were to end quickly and go away. But I don't think that there is anybody here who thinks anything out of this process constitutes a victory."

Lockhart also said that Clinton would continue to take responsibility for the inappropriate nature of his behavior. "That will last forever," he said.

Lockhart also appealed for the videotaped depositions to remain secret. He said, "we've seen what has happened in the past when depositions and videotapes have been released -- it's created sort of a frenzy. We don't think that needs to be repeated."