By Juliet Eilperin
Faced with the quandary of how to pass judgment on President Clinton's personal conduct, some lawmakers late last week renewed the call for a resolution condemning the president's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
The idea of a censure resolution, which Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) first broached in March, would have no legal ramifications but could solve Congress's current political dilemma.
"In effect, it would let every member of Congress, House or Senate, go on record as disapproving of the behavior in question," explained Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "This is a route they may very well want to follow. It may provide a way out for them."
Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) said the resolution would allow lawmakers to address the fact that Clinton had lied about having an affair without forcing the House and Senate to undertake impeachment proceedings. "You can't pretend you condone what's transpired. It's now clear, based on the president's speech, that the public and public officials were misled," LaFalce said. "Maybe a reprimand would be in order, if it would bring the matter to a close."
An aide to one House Democrat said several other members had begun calling to inquire whether the Democratic caucus as a whole could support a censure motion. According to the aide, the calls had come from Democrats facing difficult reelection races. "They're concerned that what they're saying right now might not be enough," said the aide. "They're looking for a placeholder before the Starr report comes up to say to their constituents they think this is serious and may require further action."
Any joint or separate resolution indicating disapproval of the president -- whether it be censure or a reprimand -- is purely symbolic. Under the Constitution each chamber can punish its own members, but Congress can only sanction the president through impeachment. A motion of censure in the House forces members to relinquish their chairmanships, and the Senate ethics committee can make recommendations to each party "concerning a member's seniority or positions of responsibility."
"There's no constitutional provision for these kinds of things," said Philip Klinkner, an associate professor of government at Hamilton College.
But while a few Democrats have begun advocating this option, other members argue that Congress can make no decision until it receives a referral from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"I think Democrats who are talking about censure are trying to ensure that other, more grievous options should be headed off." said Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.). "I don't think they should be dismissed automatically . . . I'm keeping all my options open, on censure, on resignation, and hopefully, it will never get to impeachment."
Republicans are more reluctant to discuss the idea of censure publicly, and GOP leaders have yet to formally discuss that option. But some Republicans members and staff have privately raised the prospect of proceeding with a resolution if the independent counsel's report does not contain any new revelations about Clinton.
Mann said many Republicans are concerned any investigation could appear partisan, and they are acutely aware that the American public has grown tired of the scandal. At the same time, lawmakers have a constitutional obligation to consider any charges of wrongdoing Starr provides to Congress.
"When it comes down to it, no matter how many fancy words you use like obstruction of justice and suborning perjury, it will all be about awful sex in the White House and how to hide it. When push comes to shove, members are reluctant to invoke impeachment proceedings on that," Mann said, adding that a resolution would spare Republicans from confronting Clinton at length on this subject. "They know if they take him on they're going to be in the political battle of their lives."
Congress has censured a president only once in its history, when the Whig-controlled Senate censured Democratic President Andrew Jackson in 1834 when he defied lawmakers and withdrew funds from the national bank. Sen. Henry Clay (Ky.), who had unsuccessfully run for president against Jackson two years earlier, led the charge against Jackson.
"That was pretty much a political theater piece," said Senate Historian Richard Baker.
In an April 15 letter of protest Jackson accused his enemies of trying to impeach him through other means. "The President of the United States, therefore, has been by a majority of his constitutional triers accused and found guilty of an impeachable offense but in no part of this proceeding have the directions of the Constitution been observed," he wrote.
Democrats regained control of the Senate in the next election, and expunged the censure resolution from the record in 1837.
Some Republicans said they might agree to expressing their disapproval of Clinton through a censure resolution, but they said they would not want it to preclude other legislative remedies based on Starr's report.
"Censure wouldn't do the job," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, if the Starr report implicated the president in a crime. "It's completely unrelated to the question of did he commit high crimes and misdemeanors."
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) suggested that if Congress passes a resolution on Clinton's conduct, it should explore requiring him to defray the costs of the Starr investigation because he denied having a relationship with Lewinsky in January. LaHood noted that in January 1997 the House reprimanded Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for misleading the House ethics committee and forced him to pay $300,000 as a reimbursement for the staff and attorney time that resulted from his inaccurate testimony.
"If we required the speaker to do that, what's good for the goose is good for the gander," LaHood said. "He could have short-circuited [the investigation] seven months ago by telling the truth."
But LaFalce said there was "an enormous distinction" between Gingrich's case and Clinton's, and any attempt to make the president pay for Starr's investigation could anger Democrats. "Gingrich misled the ethics committee," LaFalce said. "I don't think the president misled Starr. He misled the American people."
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