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Censure Resolution Put on Indefinite Hold

Diane Fienstein Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a motion to consider censure shortly after the acquittal vote Friday. (AP)

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  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A32

    In the end, all they could agree on was a carefully crafted script for a graceful exit from the dispute.

    And so, only minutes after acquitting President Clinton on two articles of impeachment, the Senate voted yesterday to postpone indefinitely consideration of a strongly worded resolution that condemned Clinton for "shameful, reckless and indefensible" behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

    The move meant that an idea that has been kicking around since the impeachment crisis began -- an official condemnation of the president's conduct -- was all but dead. It was a victory for Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), whose aggressive parliamentary tactics helped keep the measure from seeing daylight, and a setback for Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who labored for weeks to find censure language that would command bipartisan support.

    Feinstein later yesterday reintroduced the censure resolution, which had 38 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans, making it part of the Senate record. She said she was undecided about making a second attempt to pass the resolution, but conceded that the impeachment trial had been "an enormously trying situation for everybody and people want to leave it, they want to close the door and leave it."

    Even many of Feinstein's supporters echoed that sentiment, suggesting that there will be little incentive to resume the censure debate when the Senate returns from its Presidents' Day recess on Feb. 22.

    "I don't want to go back into it," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "I think this is it. It's over. Let's move on."

    In vowing to block any future attempt to pass a censure resolution, Gramm declared: "Elvis may be back but censure will not be back."

    The proposed resolution said Clinton had "misled and deceived the American people," had "demean[ed] the office of president" and "creat[ed] disrespect for laws of the land." It said the president's conduct had "brought shame and dishonor to himself and to the office of the president."

    But the resolution did not accuse Clinton of perjury or obstruction of justice, the allegedly criminal acts that were the heart of the House's impeachment articles. Instead, it asserted that he "gave false or misleading testimony and his actions have had the effect of impeding discovery of evidence in judicial proceedings."

    It appeared doubtful, however, whether any language, no matter how tough, would have been enough to win immediate Senate consideration of the resolution. The roadblocks the measure faced included constitutional skepticism by some, political calculation by others and the Senate's proclivity for delay -- a tendency the body reverted to immediately after it adjourned as the smoothly running "court of impeachment" under the watchful eye of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

    Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said there were "sharp disagreements" among senators on whether such a resolution would be constitutional, with some arguing that the Senate's only constitutionally sanctioned powers were to convict or acquit. Others, he said, "felt that it gave political cover to those who were voting to acquit."

    Gramm said the resolution would set a "very dangerous precedent" that could easily "corrode the [doctrine of] separation of powers, which is the foundation of the American political system."

    "The motivation for it is clear," Gramm added. "People want it both ways. They want to find the president guilty and not guilty at the same time."

    Democrats countered that Republican opponents of the resolution had their own political motivation. Feinstein said the GOP's "very conservative wing" opposed censure because it wanted to brand Democrats as Clinton's defenders and thought a censure resolution would soften that image.

    "Politics didn't take long to come right back into this process," Kerry said. "Senator Gramm's fundamental desire was to prevent senators from, as he said on national TV, 'covering themselves.' He views it in terms of political strategy rather than a matter of conscience for individual senators."

    With Clinton's acquittal a foregone conclusion, the attempt to craft an acceptable censure resolution provided the little suspense that was part of the impeachment trial's final days. But Gramm made clear he was prepared to make a limitless number of delaying motions to prevent a vote on the resolution. Thursday night, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) reached an agreement to end the dispute with a single vote.

    Under the agreement, the vote was on Gramm's motion to postpone voting on Feinstein's motion to suspend the rules to consider the censure resolution. The agreement also required Feinstein to win 67 votes to prevail, the same two-thirds majority necessary to suspend the rules. On the critical motion, Feinstein fell short by 11 votes: The 56 to 43 vote against postponement was largely along party lines, with 12 Republicans opposing Gramm and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) casting the only Democratic vote for postponement.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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