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Washington Journal: Final Arguments Set To Begin In Clinton Trial

Washington, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Final arguments are set to begin today in the impeachment trial of U.S. President Bill Clinton, with a widely respected senator saying he believes Clinton is guilty but still should not be removed from office.

Once the arguments are concluded, the 100-member U.S. Senate will start debating the charges, possibly as early as tomorrow (Tuesday). Those deliberations will take place behind closed doors unless the Senate rules are changed. Voting on Clinton's innocence or guilt - to be cast in public - is expected on Thursday or Friday.

Clinton will not see the nationally televised proceedings today. He left Washington late yesterday to attend the funeral today of King Hussein of Jordan.

Before leaving aboard the presidential plane, Clinton paid tribute to Hussein and promised that the U.S. will stand by Jordan.

Most Senate Democrats and Republicans acknowledge there is virtually no chance of obtaining 67 votes needed to convict Clinton of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Conviction on a two-thirds vote would mean the removal of the president, who would be succeeded by Vice President Albert Gore.

The two impeachment charges were voted out of the House of Representatives in December and turned over to the Senate for trial. The charges stem from allegations that Clinton tried to cover up through illegal means an affair with a former White House worker, Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton has acknowledged what he called an improper relationship but said he did nothing illegal. He contends the charges are politically motivated.

However, one of the most respected members of the U.S. Senate, veteran Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia, said yesterday in a television interview (ABC) that he has n-o doubt Clinton did commit perjury and obstruction of justice.

Byrd said: "The question is does this rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors (the constitutional requirement to convict and remove a president.) I say 'yes.' No doubt about it in my mind."

The statement is significant because Byrd is viewed as one of the great historians of the United States Senate and the Constitution. He was also an early advocate of seeking to dismiss the case against Clinton after it was referred to the Senate.

Byrd hastened to add, however, that in the final analysis the issue comes down to whether Clinton should be removed from office. He said removing the popular president is n-o-t in the best interest of the country.

Byrd said: "If I vote not to convict, I'm voting not to remove, because conviction carries with it removal. I have no doubt that he has given false testimony under oath and that he has misled the American people. There are indications that he did, indeed, obstruct justice."

The senator added: "But having said all of that, under the circumstances - he has less than two years to serve, he has done a lot of good things, and the American people don't want him removed. And in the interest of our country, I may come to the conclusion that we should not remove him."

Lewinsky, the 25-year-old woman who is a central figure in the impeachment, told her story Saturday in public for the first time through videotape testimony played on the Senate floor and broadcast all across America.

She said that no one asked her to lie about her relationship with Clinton but no one discouraged her to lie either.

Senators said it is possible that despite the 55-to-45 Republican edge in the Senate there may not be enough votes to muster even a simple majority to convict, let alone the required two-thirds vote.

Several senators are looking at censure resolutions that would condemn the president without finding him guilty.

Draft censure language by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California calls the president's conduct "shameless, reckless, and indefensible." It says Clinton "deliberately misled and deceived the American people and officials in all branches of the United States government."

Feinstein said (on NBC television) that she's looking for an expression outside of conviction and removal that will remain for ever part of history and Clinton's legacy.