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Senate Support Builds for Censure

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  • By Stephen Barr
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 8, 1999; Page A8

    With closing arguments in President Clinton's impeachment trial scheduled today and little doubt the president will survive a vote to remove him from office, a bipartisan group of senators yesterday pressed for agreement to punish Clinton with a toughly worded censure.

    But Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) spoke out strongly against censure and indicated he would use the Senate's rules "to fight it hard," perhaps through a filibuster.

    Lawmakers also called for an investigation into whether White House aide Sidney Blumenthal lied to Congress about attempts to smear Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern, as "a stalker." Republicans and Democrats said the allegation should be investigated by the Justice Department.

    As they have from the start, during House impeachment hearings and now during the trial, several senators continued to signal on the Sunday talk shows that Clinton should be punished for his transgressions if the Senate fails to convict the president in a vote likely by week's end.

    Gramm, however, warned that any censure proposal would not come to a Senate vote this week. "Censure is about getting political cover," Gramm said on NBC's "Meet the Press," contending that "people want to be on both sides of the issue."

    Gramm argued that "this covering-your-fanny approach has constitutional cost because if we do censure the president, we establish a precedent that when a future Harry Truman fires a future General MacArthur, then Congress is going to come in and, with a lower threshold, censure the president."

    But other senators rejected Gramm's contention, suggesting that the perjury and obstruction-of-justice counts stemming from the Lewinsky matter should be judged differently. "I don't believe this rises to the level of impacting a danger on the nation," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.

    Describing Clinton's conduct as "not only wrongful but egregious," Feinstein said, "The question is what to do, and there are really not a lot of remedies available to us. One of them is so say for all time, for the history books, what we find, where there is the ability to put together a bipartisan Senate statement outside of conviction and removal that will go down in history."

    The talk-show debate on how the Senate could wrap up Clinton's case included a bit of senatorial lobbying and jousting.

    After Gramm lodged his objection to censure, Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called the impeachment proceedings "a Republican trial."

    Saying he wanted to vote for censure, Rockefeller referred to "my conscience" and said, "by golly, I want to be able to say to myself as well as to my people that I think what he did was very, very wrong. And the censure is the way that I have to do that."

    Feinstein, seated next to Gramm, said in a steady voice to the Texas Republican that she did not question his motivations. "I hope you will take me at my word," she said, drawing an edgy smile from Gramm. "It is not something to cover one's posterior. It is something that I feel very deeply is the logical outcome of all this."

    Gramm, asked by NBC's Tim Russert if he would let the Senate vote on censure, replied, "My motivation is constitutional."

    Some senators have questioned whether censure could pass if a vote is not taken immediately after the trial ends and before a Senate recess. But Feinstein said she would not give up, even "if we have to put it on every single piece of legislation that comes down the pike."

    Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), in an ABC interview, provided a glimpse of the anguish that the impeachment trial has caused veteran lawmakers. "Does this rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors?" Byrd asked. "I say yes. No doubt about it in my mind. But the issue is, should the president be removed?"

    Byrd said other factors have to be considered, such as what was in the best interest of the nation. "There has been such polarization, such a division among the American people, and to remove him, does it help that? Or does it make the wound deeper?"

    The Senate will hear closing arguments today, then move on Tuesday to votes on whether the final deliberations by senators will be open to the public and C-SPAN cameras.

    House prosecutors were still drafting plans for their closing arguments, according to House Judiciary Committee sources, but have sketched out a multi-tiered presentation that will include presentations by many, if not all, of the 13 Judiciary Republicans.

    Tentative plans called for the managers to offer personal explanations about why the House chose to press the case against Clinton, with some using video clips to bolster their arguments, the sources said.

    Some prosecutors will plead that senators must help heal the nation by making a final decision that has "a sense of legitimacy," in the words of one source. House Judiciary Committee Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) will likely deliver the closing remarks, committee sources said.

    The Senate testimony of Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, meanwhile, ballooned as a potentially important side issue to the impeachment proceedings. On NBC, journalist Christopher Hitchens said Blumenthal told him and other reporters "that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker." A Washington Post account as soon as four days after the scandal broke quoted Lewinsky, in taped conversations with Linda R. Tripp, saying she had become known as "the stalker" because of her efforts to get near Clinton. In an affidavit filed Friday, Hitchens said Blumenthal made the comment to him at a lunch on March 19, almost two months later.

    But Hitchens's sworn statement prompted lawmakers in both parties to urge the Justice Department to investigate whether Blumenthal committed perjury by denying he spread the story. Blumenthal's lawyer issued a statement quoting the White House aide as saying, "I was never a source for any story about Monica Lewinsky's personal life."

    Feinstein said she hoped Blumenthal "isn't lying. I think if he is, it's serious." She said "one of the most difficult parts of this for me" has been accusations that Lewinsky stalked Clinton. "That has a certain diabolical ring to it," Feinstein said.

    Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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