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Many GOP Senators Cool to Censure

Smith,TWP Sen. Bob Smith (N.H.) is one of several Republicans opposed to censure. (Craig Herndon — The Washington Post)

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  • By Eric Pianin and John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, January 7, 1999; Page A9

    Many Senate Republicans have soured on the idea of presidential censure, raising the distinct possibility that President Clinton could avoid any direct punishment or reprimand if he prevails in his impending impeachment trial.

    Just a few weeks ago, Senate Republicans and Democrats and White House officials were seriously exploring options for punishing Clinton short of removal from office. But with the Senate moving toward a full impeachment trial over strong Democratic opposition, the air has gone out of the censure drive.

    While most Democrats continue to argue that a tough censure resolution – possibly including financial sanctions – would be the most appropriate response to the president's misconduct, many Republicans said in interviews this week they believe censure is unconstitutional and a dangerous precedent that could be used against future presidents. Moreover, many Republicans said that regardless of the outcome of the trial, they would continue to oppose censure.

    "Even if the president were to be acquitted, I wouldn't support a censure resolution, because I think it's unconstitutional," said Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), one of the president's severest critics in the Senate.

    Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah.), one of the few Republicans to openly embrace censure as a fallback, said he worries that Clinton might otherwise escape any form of punishment. While some Republicans argue that the House impeachment vote itself is far more damning than any censure resolution, Bennett doesn't agree.

    If Clinton is acquitted, Bennett said, "The spinmasters at the White House would then attempt to tell us that this president has been vindicated."

    The mounting Senate opposition to censure echoes sentiments in the House, where Republican leaders last month denied the Democrats a floor vote on a censure resolution. The House voted Dec. 19 to approve two articles of impeachment, charging Clinton with lying under oath about his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and obstructing justice.

    In a speech yesterday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) reiterated his view that censure faces constitutional problems. "The Constitution provides one way to deal with a problem concerning cleansing the office, and that is impeachment," Hyde said.

    Sources close to Clinton's defense agree that the momentum for censure has slowed palpably in recent days. But some White House officials caution that the eclipse may be temporary, the result of being overshadowed by the larger question of how the Senate trial will proceed.

    The Senate, unlike the House, does not have a significant faction of liberals who will reject censure as undeserved punishment. And conservative Republicans who question whether censure is constitutional might soften their stand if they view it as the only way of going on record condemning Clinton's conduct.

    The official White House line is that censure would be a good thing – a way of bringing closure to a year of controversy and a way of officially recognizing the inappropriate conduct that Clinton has already acknowledged.

    But White House aides have also emphasized repeatedly that Clinton's willingness to accept censure does not mean he will admit lying under oath – a condition that many censure proponents have suggested. And some Clinton loyalists say the idea that Clinton might avoid conviction as well as censure is an appealing prospect – though they insisted that they were offering their own views rather than speaking for Clinton.

    One White House aide said Clinton's ability to affect the censure debate is strictly limited. "It's up to Congress to decide what they believe," said one senior White House official.

    For now, GOP feelings appear to run high against any form of censure. And even if all 45 Senate Democrats were to agree to a censure, which seems unlikely, they would still need the support of at least six Republicans to pass the measure, which may not be easy.

    "If the charge is lying to his country, his Cabinet and his family, what seriousness could be ascribed . . . to an agreed statement of rebuke like censure?" said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a leading opponent of censure. "I do not think even Charlie Brown would attempt to kick this football."

    Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "The only thing we can do as an impeachment body is vote guilty or not guilty. Doing anything else doesn't fulfill the constitutional process."

    Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), a member of the Democratic leadership, said that "there's a fairly widespread feeling" among the Democrats that the president should be censured in the likely event he survives his Senate ordeal. But a few are cool to the idea.

    "I've already censured the president," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "I publicly said what he did was wrong – immoral and degrading to his office. Why do I have to join 99 other senators to do it again?"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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