Both Parties Seek End to Impeachment Drive
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 9, 1998; Page A01
With the prospects that President Clinton will be impeached fading after last week's elections and the ouster of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the White House and congressional leaders are searching anxiously for an exit strategy that for now appears elusive.
Key strategists in both parties privately have come to the conclusion in recent days that Congress probably will not remove Clinton from office over the Monica S. Lewinsky matter, but few are certain how the two sides can come together to bring the inquiry to a quick close without more political bloodletting.
In the most common scenario, Congress could pass a censure resolution formally reprimanding the president for trying to cover up his affair with the onetime White House intern during the Paula Jones lawsuit and subsequent grand jury testimony. Clinton would have to accept responsibility for his actions but would finish out the final two years of his term.
The trick, according to some close to the situation, is getting from here to there at a time of great turmoil among Republicans, who hold the majority on Capitol Hill. "That's sort of the global answer to this," said former White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis. "How that happens in this atmosphere is very, very problematical."
In an environment where Washington has come to expect the unexpected, the president's current fortunes, of course, could shift again. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr could come up with new allegations of misconduct. And it remains uncertain how the upheaval in the House GOP leadership will play out.
"Even if there was a new exit strategy . . . the exit strategy could be overridden," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.). "The new speaker would get first say."
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the leading candidate to replace Gingrich (R-Ga.) as speaker, sent mixed signals yesterday, saying that lying under oath is a "very serious" charge while also noting the public's lack of appetite for evicting Clinton.
"The American people have certainly indicated in the polls that they don't see it as an impeachable or dismissible offense," he said on ABC's "This Week." "And that would have to be considered in the political arena. But still in all, we cannot simply disregard the fact that there are other people in our society -- in the military and various other walks of life, as CEOs or principals of schools -- who have been likewise charged and have lost their jobs."
The uproars over impeachment and House leadership have converged on Capitol Hill, a point underscored by the calendar: The GOP caucus will hold its election for speaker Nov. 18, the day before Starr is scheduled to appear before the Judiciary Committee as its only major witness.
Livingston or any other prospective speaker faces unappealing choices. Virtually no one involved believes that the Senate would muster the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Clinton and remove him from power. That raises several possibilities for the House GOP: to impeach him anyway in what would likely be a party-line vote; to allow an impeachment floor vote on the theory that Clinton would win after Republican moderates balk; or to attempt to cut a deal to avert a vote altogether.
Even as he outlined a minimalist approach to the impeachment inquiry, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) last week sounded as if he believed his panel and the full House would approve articles of impeachment, leaving it to the Senate to find a resolution.
"I see us proceeding with our hearings, getting a bill of impeachment on the table . . . and then, if we have the majority votes getting it to the floor, asking the speaker to call back the [full House] for a vote," he said. "That's the most likely scenario."
Some conservatives, including Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), see an impeachment floor vote as essential. "If the House doesn't do that, I don't think the House is doing its duty," said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). Still, he added, "The fact is, we are in a damned if we do, damned if we don't position."
If it does come to the House floor, though, many Republicans no longer believe their caucus with its fragile six-vote margin would hold together. "My analysis today would be either the Judiciary Committee doesn't pass it, or, if they do, that there won't be the votes in the House to move it to the Senate," retiring Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) said on Fox News Sunday.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who won a Senate seat last week but will serve on the Judiciary Committee until January, had a similar assessment of his GOP colleagues on the panel. "They're going to figure out a way to wriggle out of this and I do not think either they or the full House will vote to move the impeachment proceedings to the Senate," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
At the White House, events have fallen into place so neatly over the last few weeks that they almost appeared part of a grand design. But officials said their damage-control efforts were far too improvisational -- and far too often driven by events they never foresaw -- for there to have been any larger strategy. Still, they said, the president's defense has always been predicated in part on the expectation that Clinton's adversaries would overreach.
"There certainly is a history of Republicans taking an advantage and turning it into a disadvantage," said press secretary Joe Lockhart. "And there was always some hope of that based on recent history."
Now the question has turned to the resolution. White House officials met over the weekend to plot their next steps. Publicly, at least, the White House maintains it is still open to a plea bargain-style deal.
"Our position is the same as it was before the election: We will give serious consideration to any reasonable proposal from an authoritative source that offers the prospect of a rapid resolution of this matter under mutually agreeable terms," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig.
Yet privately, in the days since the election, the Clinton camp has hardened its resistance to reaching a deal with the same terms it would have welcomed just a few weeks ago. Some emboldened Clinton confidants have gone so far as to argue against any concession, effectively daring the House to take an up-or-down vote, although that may be part bargaining stance. Others are still open to censure but no longer willing to discuss a "censure-plus" agreement that would include additional punishment such as a large fine.
"We've stopped talking about 'plus,' " said one person involved in the White House defense. "The landscape has changed. And the honest answer is since the election we don't think it's necessary."
Fully aware of the cycles of fumble and recovery that have defined Clinton's career for decades, advisers are sensitive to the fear that he may grow cocky after the latest turn of events; some privately argue he has to accept censure for his own good.
"It's in his interest to have some statement of accountability here from the Congress," said one such advocate. "He has accepted responsibility personally, but the history books haven't. There has to be something in the history books [setting precedent] for future presidents."
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Ruth Marcus contributed to this report.
© Copyright The Washington Post Company