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Feinstein: A Last-Minute Push for Censure

Feinstein,TWP Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) talks with reporters en route to the closed impeachment trial on Capitol Hill. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, February 12, 1999; Page A23

    The leading Democratic advocate of censuring President Clinton for his conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal made a last-minute appeal to the Senate yesterday, saying that Clinton's behavior was "immoral, deplorable and indefensible" and that it merited "strong condemnation and censure."

    In a statement announcing that she will vote to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the censure resolution that she and others have been laboring on for weeks would not express "legal conclusions" about Clinton's behavior but would be "a legislative measure expressing our moral conclusions regarding the president's conduct."

    But with the votes on the impeachment articles now set for today, Feinstein and her allies faced a daunting task that seemed almost certain to fail. She said that following the votes on the articles, she will try to get the Senate to consider a censure resolution immediately by suspending its rules, a step that requires a two-thirds vote.

    If that gambit falters, which yesterday seemed likely, the Senate could consider the resolution later in the year, although many senators say there will be little appetite to return to the Lewinsky matter once the impeachment drama is over. Another option would be for senators to sign an unofficial "declaration" condemning the president.

    Feinstein emerged as a leading proponent of censure after several weeks of apparent uncertainty last year over how to respond to the burgeoning Lewinsky scandal. The second most senior among the six Democratic women in the Senate, the 65-year-old Californian is known for her independence and has been mentioned as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000. For a brief time, her loyalty to the president appeared seriously in doubt, raising questions about Clinton's fate in the Senate.

    Feinstein and California's other senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, were in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in January 1998 when Clinton issued his finger-waving denial that he had had sexual relations with Lewinsky.

    "I believed it and I believed it totally," Feinstein later recalled. "And so for seven months that was something that was very important to me."

    When Clinton acknowledged last August that he lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, Feinstein was stunned. She later described her feelings as "a gut-level sense of betrayal" and disclosed that she had rejected a White House offer to speak privately with Clinton.

    In an interview yesterday, Feinstein said she never considered calling for Clinton's resignation despite her "visceral" reaction to his admission of lying. She also said that it was an opinion article by a Republican -- former Senate majority leader and GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole -- that first drew her interest to censure as an alternative to removal from office.

    "I thought that if they can't prove obstruction of justice and perjury, censure does make sense," she said.

    In tandem with Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), Feinstein has worked furiously during the last few weeks to gather support for a censure resolution. She said that the proposed resolution has been through 25 versions, with one section becoming increasingly tougher on Clinton for his conduct in the Lewinsky matter, and that a majority of senators would vote for it if they had the chance.

    But all the revisions have not won over the remaining critics, who can throw procedural roadblocks in the way of considering the resolution immediately.

    "Some on our side think it's too strong," Feinstein said. "Some on the other side, I'm sure, want it even stronger, although it's about as strong as I think you can gather a majority around."

    Some Republicans have also charged that a censure resolution is intended only to provide "political cover" for the Democrats who vote to acquit Clinton, an assertion that Feinstein said she found "vexing," while others, including Democrats, see little point in the entire exercise.

    "I don't think censure would make any difference," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii). "If you support censure you can go up there and make a speech."

    But Feinstein argued, as she has to her colleagues, that "at some time it is important to say how we see this. It's a mega-decision."

    For Feinstein, voting to acquit but approving a censure resolution remains probably the best way to reconcile an abiding admiration of Clinton the president and a deep dismay over his personal conduct.

    "You're terribly conflicted," she said. "I basically believe he's been a good president. So it's very hard. It leaves a wound."

    "I've watched this president," she added. "In terms of public policy he's one of the brightest people I've ever seen. He's been very encouraging to us. He's gone beyond the pale to help at times. It's hard to forget all that. When in our country a friend is in trouble, you don't want to be the one to knock him down. This is not an easy situation for any of us."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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