By Dan Balz
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), joined by two other leading Democrats, delivered an extraordinary public condemnation of President Clinton from the floor of the Senate yesterday for behavior Lieberman described as "immoral," "disgraceful" and deserving of "public rebuke and accountability."
Lieberman, a longtime political ally of the president, offered perhaps the most scathing criticism by any Democratic official of Clinton's extramarital relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and what the Connecticut senator called his "intentional and premeditated" denials of the affair for seven months.
"Such behavior is not only inappropriate," Lieberman said. "It is immoral and it is harmful." Clinton's actions, he said, "contradicted the values" the president has publicly embraced for the past six years and "compromised his moral authority" to restore the strength of the American family.
But the Connecticut senator, who spoke in somber language, said talk of impeachment and resignation was "premature," cautioning his colleagues that Congress should await the report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, due on Capitol Hill later this month, before deciding on an appropriate course of action.
Yesterday's unfolding events represented another sign of the weakening support for the president among his Democratic colleagues as the midterm congressional election approaches and the growing unease on Capitol Hill that the Starr report may contain more damaging revelations about Clinton's behavior.
Immediately after Lieberman concluded his statement, two senior Democrats Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) rose to endorse Lieberman's rebuke of the president and to praise him for his words.
Moynihan also sent a warning to the White House that many Democrats on Capitol Hill will resist turning the coming review of the Starr report into a purely partisan exercise. "It will be for us to discharge our constitutional duties," he said.
Other congressional Democrats and administration officials had sought to persuade Lieberman not to deliver his speech before the president, who arrived in Ireland yesterday, left Russia. Many were worried that a Lieberman call for censure which was widely rumored to be where he was heading earlier in the week would create divisions within the party that would enhance GOP chances to gain seats in the November elections.
Some presidential allies sought refuge in the fact that Lieberman's uncompromising critique of the president's actions stopped short of calling for immediate action by Congress to censure or reprimand Clinton. But other Democrats said the White House should take no comfort from what happened yesterday.
"I don't think the water's going to come rushing out of the dam, but I think Lieberman said what a significant number of Democratic senators believe should be said," one Democratic strategist said shortly after the speeches on the Senate floor. He added, "I think he [Lieberman] threaded the needle pretty well. He's clear in the potential harm that could come out of this, but also the potential for the president to make it better."
Reaction from the White House was muted. "The president has great respect for Sen. Lieberman because of the key role he has played in the president's accomplishments on behalf of the American people," deputy White House press secretary Barry Toiv said. "It's always hardest to hear criticism from a friend, but I am sure the president will consider Senator Lieberman's words with the same care with which they were delivered."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined Kerrey and Moynihan in praising Lieberman yesterday and tried to reassure his colleagues that he would resist partisanship in dealing with the Starr report. "I'm sure that we'll find a way to rise above petty politics and do the right thing," Lott said.
No one is certain when the Starr report will reach Capitol Hill, but GOP leaders in the House continued preparations for handling it once it arrives. House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) said in an interview that he and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) were finishing work on a resolution dictating how the report will be handled.
Under the terms of the resolution, the report would be sent immediately to the Judiciary Committee, but an executive summary of Starr's findings would be made available to all members and to the public. "It should be accompanied by an executive summary," Solomon said, adding his colleagues deserve to read the broad outlines of Starr's findings. "That's what I would insist they would be able to see," he said. "Every member and the press are entitled to see that." Solomon also said he hoped all members of the House would be able to read the entire report before any vote is taken on whether to launch a formal impeaching inquiry.
Lieberman's speech came a day after Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) delivered her own harsh critique of the president's behavior in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Chastising the president for dragging his family and the nation through a "year of deceitful melodrama," she urged Clinton to "choose an honorable course and do what is right for our nation."
Kaptur stopped short of calling for Clinton's resignation in the speech, but said his actions require "public restitution, beyond verbal expressions of regret." She later told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "If he resigned tomorrow, it wouldn't be enough in my judgment. I am asking for something beyond that."
Other Democrats said yesterday they would support some kind of congressional action against the president. Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.) said he wants to study the Starr report before making a final decision, but is currently inclined to support at least a reprimand. "That kind of behavior, if you are a school principal in Indiana, gets your fired," he said. Rep. James H. Maloney (D-Conn.) said, "I felt the president's behavior was reprehensible. "Reprehensible means deserving of rebuke."
Campaigning for House Democrats in New Hampshire, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who last week castigated the president for "reprehensible" behavior and talked openly about the possibility of an impeachment proceeding, cautioned his colleagues not to rush to judgment. "I don't think we ought to get ahead of ourselves," he said of the talk of censure. "Let's not jump to conclusions."
Lieberman's words yesterday carried additional weight in part because of his long political relationship with Clinton even though he has sometimes broken with the White House on foreign policy and cultural issues. Both have chaired the Democratic Leadership Council and have worked together to fashion a "New Democrat" agenda designed to make the party more appealing to middle class voters.
The Connecticut senator said he was disappointed and angry immediately after Clinton's Aug. 17 address to the nation. He said those personal feelings have since given way to "a larger, graver sense of loss for our country, a reckoning of the damage that the president's conduct has done to the proud legacy of his presidency and ultimately an accounting of the impact of his actions on our democracy and its moral foundations."
Lieberman also said the president's televised speech fell far short of what was required. Clinton, he said, "clearly failed" to demonstrate that he "recognized how significant and consequential his wrongdoing was and how badly he felt about it" and how much it had diminished his office. While Clinton attempted to shift some of the blame to Starr and others, Lieberman said, "His presidency would not be imperiled if it had not been for the behavior he himself described as wrong and inappropriate," he said.
Lieberman acknowledged the appeal to weary Americans of having the whole investigation over, but added, "The transgressions the president has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression" that what Clinton did is acceptable. "It is wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability."
But as the legal process moves forward, he said, "It is important that we provide the president with the time and space and support he needs" to carry out his duties as president.
That period, he said, also could provide Clinton, who White House aides say is resistant to saying more on the matter, "additional opportunities to accept personal responsibility for his behavior, to rebuild public trust in his leadership, to recommit himself to the values of opportunity, responsibility and community that brought him to office, and to act to heal the wounds in our national character."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly and Juliet Eilperin and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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