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Perjury Charge Faces Close Vote


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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page A1

    A preliminary survey by House Republicans looking ahead to a floor vote next month on impeaching President Clinton has found that a single article charging him with perjury would come close to passing while a possible second count of obstruction of justice would fail, senior GOP sources said yesterday.

    But a punishment for Clinton short of impeachment, such as a congressional resolution of censure, appeared to be gaining momentum yesterday. The GOP vote count, the sources said, showed that such a measure is very likely to pass if Democrats follow the public position of their leadership and embrace it. Even wavering Democrats are now doing that, with Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), the first Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation and a member viewed as a likely impeachment supporter, yesterday circulating the House's first formal censure proposal.

    A senior Republican aide acknowledged that McHale's move could carry "tremendous weight" in the debate over whether Clinton should be impeached for concealing his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky in the Paula Jones case and subsequent criminal investigation. The aide said the vote count found that while full House approval of impeachment on a perjury charge was "definitely in play," an obstruction of justice charge, "at the present time, has no chance." Should an impeachment vote fail on the House floor, Republicans said, it was increasingly likely that the leadership would allow a vote on censure.

    In an interview, Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon suggested the form a censure resolution could take: a measure, like McHale's proposal, that would be passed by both the House and Senate and require Clinton's signature. Forcing the president to sign the resolution, Solomon suggested, "might be the same kind of embarrassment" as other censure options that are unlikely to pass the House.

    Yesterday's vote survey and Solomon's comments were among the first indications since Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) assumed leadership of the House GOP that Republicans outside the Judiciary Committee have begun seriously to explore possible outcomes to the impeachment inquiry.

    The Judiciary panel itself now seems intent on wrapping up its investigation as soon as possible in order to meet Chairman Henry J. Hyde's (R-Ill.) current plan for a vote on articles of impeachment the week of Dec. 7 and a House floor vote the following week.

    Judiciary Committee sources said the panel has no plans to depose any witnesses beyond the three expected to appear next week regarding Clinton's involvement with former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who has accused the president of groping her in the Oval Office suite in 1993. Willey's lawyer testified in a closed-door deposition Monday.

    The sources said the committee is also considering granting the White House a full day of public hearing the week of Dec. 7 to mount a defense, before Republican chief counsel David P. Schippers makes a closing presentation. Then, the committee will debate and vote on articles of impeachment.

    The 21 Republicans on the 37-member committee are virtually certain to approve a charge against Clinton for perjuring himself in grand jury testimony regarding his sexual involvement with Lewinsky. But committee sources said the Judiciary Republicans are also considering a second article whose approval is less likely, charging Clinton obstructed justice by deliberately masking his relationship with Lewinsky and, perhaps, misleading investigators in other matters.

    While they have not received any formal offer for a day to present their case, White House officials said they were likely to take advantage of such an opportunity. The officials also said they hoped to respond this morning to 81 questions posed by the Judiciary Committee, assuming Clinton had no last-minute objections after reviewing the answers drafted by his lawyers late yesterday.

    On many of the questions, allies believe the White House will provide the "admit" or "deny" answers requested by the committee; on other, more confrontational questions, such as those asking him to admit lying under oath, the White House will probably refer the committee to Clinton's Aug. 17 testimony to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury.

    With White House officials planning Clinton's defense guided by the view that "less is better than more," as one put it, top House Republicans were predicting that a perjury charge against the president could result in a cliffhanger vote on the House floor.

    A senior GOP leadership aide said Republicans counted 30 of the current Congress's 227 Republicans who "might possibly" vote against impeachment, but the estimate dropped to 20 when the measure was confined to a single perjury count. Only five Republicans have said publicly they intend to vote against impeachment.

    The aide said Republicans would quite likely pick up at least five Democratic defectors, and possibly two or three others, bringing them within three votes of the 218 needed to impeach the president.

    Telephone calls to the 31 Democrats who voted with the Republicans in October to open the impeachment inquiry found at least three who say they will vote for impeachment: Reps. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.), Ralph M. Hall (Texas) and Gene Taylor (Miss.). Five others said they would not vote to impeach, while the rest either have not made up their minds or did not return calls.

    But one of the Democrats included in the Republicans' original count of five defectors, however, was McHale, who yesterday released a draft joint resolution that "does hereby censure and condemn William Jefferson Clinton," charging Clinton committed perjury, obstructed justice and "acted in a manner contrary to his trust as president."

    McHale said he decided to draft the resolution yesterday morning because "it became clear to me that impeachment in the House was unlikely, and the possibility of conviction in the Senate was extremely remote."

    "If, in fact, the outcome of the impeachment process is unlikely to affect the president's term in office, it is in the nation's best interest that we conclude the matter quickly and responsibly," he added.

    The proposal "in substance satisfies the Republicans, in outcome satisfies the Democrats, and in any event it conforms with the truth," McHale said.

    Some form of censure appeared to be an increasingly attractive option to Democrats, including fence-sitters like Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.), one of the 31 defectors, who said yesterday he will not vote to impeach. "The country needs to resolve this," Roemer said. "If he did lie under oath, even if it was a private matter, he's eligible to be prosecuted after he leaves [office], and we need some kind of punishment as a signal for our children that this is not acceptable behavior."

    Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), the new chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said there are "a significant number of Democrats" who would like to register their disapproval of the president's behavior and, while they intended to vote against impeachment, would "like to have something to vote for."

    Although the president's advisers would happily accept censure, they are hesitant to say so explicitly for fear they would alienate Republicans. Some advisers have long discussed a possible resolution requiring the president's signature as a way of bringing closure and signaling his acceptance of responsibility.

    Judiciary Committee member William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) yesterday announced a censure proposal that Delahunt chief of staff Steve Schwardon described as "a single declarative sentence: 'We,the Congress, disapprove of the president's miserable behavior, period.'"

    The GOP leadership aide said there were 70 to 100 Republicans who would not vote for censure. These would include Judiciary Committee members, hard-core Clinton opponents who want impeachment or nothing, "constitutionalists" who believe that censure is unconstitutional and "institutionalists" who are not interested in a precedent that raises the possibility of censure whenever Congress is displeased.

    The aide also suggested that censure could lose votes from Democratic institutionalists and hard-core Clinton supporters like the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whose members do not believe Clinton did anything deserving punishment.

    "There is absolutely no enthusiasm at all to do this censure business," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman-designate of the Black Caucus.

    But he emphasized that many caucus members would back a written censure that "was part of a bipartisan effort" and "not unnecessarily insulting to the president."

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.


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