By Dan Balz
The president's defenders face an agonizing series of choices with no history to guide them. Should they move quickly to attempt to strike a deal, knowing there is little motivation for Republicans to cooperate before the November elections? Can they afford to wait, running the risk that Clinton's support among Democrats erodes after the elections if the GOP makes gains in the House and Senate, as is now expected?
White House officials tiptoe gingerly around the issue, fearing the more they embrace the possibility of censure as a way to end the long investigation, the more Republicans will view it as barely a slap on the wrist for the president. Democrats in Congress fear that open talk of what House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) called "a middle option" between impeachment and no action will devalue its currency.
"How you get there from here is a subject the whole Hill is pondering," one congressional Democrat said yesterday.
With the House Judiciary Committee moving toward a formal impeachment inquiry, Republican congressional leaders have ruled out censure as a likely punishment for the president.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has made clear that, with the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, censure is off the table. Yesterday, House GOP leaders rejected an overture from an unidentified Democratic House member who was said to be interested in opening censure discussions.
Democrats in Congress share the belief that it would be best for them if the entire issue is resolved before the election. That would clear the air and prevent the Lewinsky issue from dominating the last weeks of the campaign.
But Democrats also think it is far too early for any censure strategy to work. "To begin to negotiate over some lesser penalty runs the risk of giving up more than he needs to and of making Republican members feel emboldened to seek an even harsher penalty," said one Democrat familiar with strategy discussions at the White House.
He added, "Frankly, from a purely political perspective, the process has to take some time for fear that you'll cause a reaction that he's [Clinton] gotten away with something. In many respects the members and the public have to believe he's suffered before you can have closure."
Another Democrat said censure can occur only after Republicans conclude "that something less than impeachment is in their political interest." Right now, there is no evidence that Republicans fear the political consequences of moving forward with impeachment, although some Democrats argue that could begin to happen soon if polls continue to show the public strongly opposed to impeachment.
"It depends on what's in those 36 boxes" that Starr submitted along with his report, said Ed Gillespie, the former communications director of the Republican National Committee. "If the information in the 36 boxes does not substantiate what Starr lays out in his report, then censure might be an easy enough sanction. But if the material he sent up does support the allegations, then censure is a slap on the wrist for a felony."
Clinton's defenders remain immobilized as long as the president is reluctant to admit he lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky -- and for legal reasons he is loath to do that unless he knows the consequences in advance. To bring off such a deal would require a set of negotiations that no Democrat knows how to initiate at this point.
"From the White House perspective, I don't think you want to concede that an impeachment inquiry is necessary because then you lose your first line of defense," said one Democrat.
Democrats argue that the more time they have to make the argument that, whatever Clinton did, it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense, the more Republicans in Congress may yield to public opinion, which continues to show a strong majority opposed to impeachment or resignation and in favor of censure.
But a former administration official said that, whatever public opinion shows, many members of Congress may have trouble accepting perjury as something that deserves no more than a censure. "I think you will have people disagree over this," he said, adding, "I don't think public opinion is going to be an antidote to that."
Some Republicans believe that the longer the impeachment proceedings go on, the more the public will come to accept the need for the president's removal from office. One Republican said polls showing support for censure may merely be "a way station" on the road to support for impeachment.
Finally, there is the issue of whether censure itself is enough, which has prompted talk of what some people have called "censure-plus," an undefined concept that suggests something more punitive than a resolution approved by the House and Senate. Some Democrats say they believe the American people know little about censure and, while supporting the idea, will want something more punitive.
Congressional Democrats are wrestling with that issue now as well, trying to envision some kind of sanction that appears equal to the president's offenses. House members facing censure must stand in the well of the House as their punishment is meted out. No one knows if that is what could face the president.
Given the polarization of the House, allies of the president suspect that any move toward censure would have to form in the Senate, with an alliance of moderate Republicans and Democrats such as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), whose speech critical of the president two weeks ago virtually guaranteed some kind of rebuke for Clinton.
But even those most hopeful of bringing it about remain dubious. "The degree to which it could be arranged by all parties is a very, very difficult task," a House Democrat said. "Even if everyone wanted to go in the same direction."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company