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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page A17

    Once President Clinton's team wraps up two long days of presenting the case against impeachment this evening, his defense will begin a frantic exercise in vote-counting to gauge what effect the parade of witnesses has had on the small corps of moderate Republicans on whom next week's historic House floor vote will hinge.

    The strategy, as various Clinton advisers described it yesterday, is based on the following logic: If there are signs that the argument that the president's lawyers laid out yesterday and will continue today is causing GOP swing votes to shy from impeachment, Clinton will essentially let his defense rest.

    But if it looks like the defense effort has failed to move votes, some advisers said they are urging a far more aggressive approach in the final days before a full House vote. This could include public statements by Clinton amplifying his previous expressions of personal regret and forthright signals to wavering members that he would be willing to accept a significant financial penalty as part of an official reprimand that stopped short of impeachment.

    This delicate calculation is complicated by what some Clinton supporters acknowledge is the difficulty the White House is having divining the intentions of House Republicans and what arguments will resonate with the two dozen or so members whose votes they think might be winnable.

    While White House lobbyists and various Clinton proxies have been speaking with Republican moderates, people close to the president's defense said yesterday it has been a frustrating exercise.

    "Nobody knows where we are – nobody," said one Clinton loyalist, who said the impeachment defense has been like "shadowboxing" because the Republican caucus is so hard to read.

    As White House operatives see it, the Republican moderates they need are tugged between their knowledge that voting to impeach would be an unpopular move and the intense pressure they are facing from more conservative members of their own party.

    Some advisers, speaking on condition they not be identified by name, said this political reality makes the defense Clinton's team is presenting to the House Judiciary Committee a virtual irrelevancy.

    "It won't make any difference," said one outside adviser. "They're vindictive, they're mad they lost the election, and they'll never get over it."

    "This testimony is kind of preaching to the converted," said one former administration official who remains close to many in the White House. "Is it moving any votes? I suspect it isn't."

    White House officials offered a somewhat more sanguine assessment of yesterday's proceedings. They asserted that for the first time Clinton's side had begun to debunk some of the prevailing assumptions about the president's conduct, such as the widespread belief that Clinton had committed perjury in the Paula Jones case and in his Aug. 17 grand jury appearance and that the only question before the House was the appropriate punishment for this offense.

    And they expressed hope that the reported movement of some GOP moderates, such as Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), against impeachment might signal the start of a trend.

    Above all, many White House loyalists are hoping that Republicans eventually will come to believe that their political self-interest and Clinton's are the same.

    "As a friend of the president and as an American, I hope they don't do it," said former Clinton political consultant James Carville. "As a Democrat, it would be the best thing that ever happened to the party."

    But many people on or close to Clinton's defense team now acknowledge that they gravely misjudged how little effect the strong Democratic showing in last month's midterm elections would have on the impeachment drive.

    "Everyone realizes now it was crazy for us to get into this lull after the election," said one Clinton adviser.

    Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff and an informal adviser in the effort to stave off impeachment, said yesterday the president and his team should now realize that "you've got legislative trench warfare going on now."

    This reality, he said, means that Clinton should be aggressively reaching out to wavering votes, directly addressing the concerns of some Republicans that he is insufficiently contrite, and asking what he needs to do to avert their vote for impeachment.

    But such a strategy carries a high cost. This kind of lobbying effort, advisers said, would almost certainly result in Clinton having to accept a "censure-plus" penalty – in which he would lose his pension, for instance, or have to go to the well of the House to formally receive a reprimand.

    On the other hand, some advisers said, if Clinton were to simply let impeachment advocates take their best shot – and they ended up losing a full House floor vote – he could plausibly claim to have prevailed in his political battle.

    While he might still be censured, the indignity of having to accept a "censure-plus" penalty would become more remote.

    While advisers held out the possibility that Clinton would jump much more publicly and personally into the campaign to avoid impeachment, he spent yesterday steering clear of the drama playing out on Capitol Hill.

    Clinton began the morning with a speech signaling his desire to work with legislators of both parties to pass legislation ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security, then flew to Tennessee for the funeral of former senator Albert Gore Sr., the vice president's father. Last night he attended a dinner to honor negotiators in the Northern Ireland peace accord.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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