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LOTT WANTS SENATORS TO CONFER ON NEXT STEPS

With Democratic support for President Clinton holding firm, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., today suggested a closed-door meeting of all senators to discuss guidelines for the balance of the impeachment trial. The lead Republican prosecutor, meanwhile, suggested senators invite the president to testify.

"Because the president is the only individual with knowledge of almost every material fact relevant to the trial, the House believes that his testimony could greatly help to expeditiously and fairly bring this matter to a close," Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., wrote in a letter today to the Senate leaders.

Hyde said the House "would welcome the opportunity to participate in the fair examination of President Clinton" if the Senate requests the president's appearance. The White House has said repeatedly that there are no plans for Clinton to testify.

Lott denied he is seeking an exit from the trial but told reporters, "There's a feeling that sometime next week we might want to have another one of those Old Senate Chamber meetings." He was referring to the session two weeks ago that produced a bipartisan plan for moving ahead with the first impeachment trial in 131 years.

Some Republican lawmakers fear that drawn-out proceedings would inflict long-term political damage to their party, as numerous Democrats have said in recent days.

Senators today began a new phase of the trial, questioning of the two legal teams about the allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., one of the prosecutors, seized the first question read aloud by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and tried to rebut White House assertions that the perjury case against Clinton was a "he said, she said" case.

Clinton's lawyers had left out evidence that would have provided "ample corroboration," Bryant said, in response to questions from four Republican senators.

Monica S. Lewinsky's testimony, he said, was verified by White House records,phone logs and the testimony of her friends and Secret Service agents.

Thursday, the president's lawyers closed their presentation with a ringing, emotional appeal by a former senator who claimed Clinton, his friend, already had been punished enough.

"The punishment of removing Bill Clinton from office would pale compared to the punishment he has already inflicted on himself," declared Democrat Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, an orator of the traditional school.

Stung by three days of barbed attacks on their impeachment case by White House lawyers, the House prosecution team demanded an opportunity for rebuttal time despite a bipartisan Senate deal that envisions no additional presentations.

"We feel unhappy about the fact the agreement reached among the senators does not provide rebuttal time for us," Hyde said. "We feel that's pretty standard."

The Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer Journal House quoted one prosecutor, Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., as saying Clinton's lawyers had succeeded in "challenging every phase of the case we made."

Gekas said today he doesn't believe any Democrats have been swayed to remove the president.

"As of now, no," he said when asked whether prosecutors had persuaded any of the Senate's 45 Democrats to vote in favoring of convicting Clinton of grand jury perjury or obstruction of justice. "Now, that may change and could change by way of the series of questions that need to be asked. And also on the question of witnesses," he added.

When the trial is over, Clinton will still be president, the newspaper quoted Gekas as saying.

Other House "managers," such as Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, offered even more blunt criticism of the Senate process.

"Under the traditional rules of impeachment, the managers have an opportunity for rebuttal. The Senate resolution undermines that opportunity, much to the detriment of the truth and facts in the case," Cannon said.

Several GOP senators said the House team will have a chance to respond to the White House's assertions during the 16 hours of questioning by senators today and Saturday.

But with the questions alternating between parties and with Lott urging both sides to be "succinct in their answers," prosecutors said they might not have the time they want to respond to the president's defense.

Monday, the Senate is expected to consider a Democratic motion to dismiss the two articles of impeachment against the president.

"There's a feeling in this country that somehow or other Bill Clinton has gotten away with something," said Bumpers, a former senator. "I can tell you he hasn't gotten away with anything."

He chided House Republican prosecutors for using harsh language to describe the president's misdeeds. Republicans repeatedly calling Clinton a liar has been "too much for a family that has already been about as decimated as a family can get."

"A relationship between husband and wife, father and child has been incredibly strained, if not destroyed," Bumpers said.

"It was a breach of his family trust," Bumpers said. "It is a sex scandal. H.L. Mencken said one time, 'When you hear somebody say, "This is not about money," it's about money.' And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex,' it's about sex."

Clinton's instance of "infidelity" was "not a breach in the public trust, not a crime against society," Bumpers insisted, speaking from rough notes scrawled on a long, yellow legal pad.

Humorous and passionate by turns, Bumpers' address was consistent with White House and Democratic congressional claims that Republicans want Clinton removed because of a private sex scandal. House Republicans impeached him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The appearance of the popular Bumpers on Clinton's behalf gave the Democrats a clear morale boost.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters he is "more optimistic that we can end this (trial) with some sort of dispatch than I have been since this started."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agreed.

"We are closer to a rapid close than we were a week ago," he said.

After Bumpers' stirring speech, former colleagues, Republicans as well as Democrats, lined up to congratulate him.

News Washington Bureau Chief Douglas Turner contributed to this story.

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