Support During Tour
By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
They were flying to Puerto Rico to inspect hurricane damage, but Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to repair damage of another sort -- to her husband's political career.
The first lady pressed four House Democrats accompanying her on a relief tour this week to stand with President Clinton and oppose an impeachment inquiry into his attempts to cover up an extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.
"To proceed with what has already become a bogus process would itself be bogus," she told the lawmakers, according to Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.).
The in-flight lobbying was the latest example of the first lady's quiet efforts to help her husband stave off the first serious impeachment drive since Watergate, when she worked as a young lawyer on the congressional inquiry. While keeping mum in public about the Lewinsky situation, she has stumped around the country for Democratic candidates and telephoned key House Democrats to rally the party.
The message has been consistent: No matter how hurtful his actions, they do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses and they were the byproduct of an illegitimate investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. While expressing aggravation at what she called Starr's prosecutorial misconduct, she has implored House Democrats to change the subject back to budget issues, where she believes the Republicans will be vulnerable in the fall elections.
The entreaty worked with Kennedy, anyway. After wrestling with how to vote next week, Kennedy delivered an impassioned floor speech yesterday urging colleagues to reject a formal probe. "Impeachment proceedings are just like pulling a fire alarm in a crowded room," he said. "You better think before you pull, lest many people or a nation may get hurt."
Kennedy compared Starr's tactics to "sexual McCarthyism," arguing that nothing in the independent counsel's report to Congress "shows that the president was on a course that was dangerous to the republic or justifies throwing this democracy into a tailspin."
The other three Democrats on this week's flight to Puerto Rico, Reps. Jim McDermott (Wash.), George Miller (Calif.) and Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), did not comment about the conversation. But Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who previously has spoken with Hillary Clinton by telephone, said in an interview yesterday that he believed she would accept "a reasonable censure resolution that was proportionate to the offense."
A number of Democrats who once envisioned a hefty fine as part of any censure deal now believe that such a move would in effect penalize the first lady for her husband's infidelity, because she was the one who earned most of the couple's savings. "That's her money," Moran said.
As an alternative, Moran said he is researching a penalty that would strip Clinton of his annual pension and some government-paid perquisites after leaving office. According to the General Services Administration, former presidents receive an annual $152,000 pension, plus an additional allotment for office space, staff and expenses ranging from about $300,000 for Gerald R. Ford to $550,000 for Ronald Reagan.
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