White House Open to Deal on Impeachment
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 5, 1998; Page A1
The White House signaled yesterday that President Clinton might be willing to pay a fine as part of a censure deal to avoid impeachment, as his lawyers demanded that the House Judiciary Committee postpone next week's votes to give them time to mount an extensive defense of the president.
With the final showdown approaching, the moves reflected increasing alarm within the Clinton camp that not only are articles of impeachment virtually certain to be approved by the committee but at least one article may be adopted by the full House. If so, Clinton would be just the second president in history to be impeached and would face the prospect of a trial in the Senate.
To head it off, White House lawyers decided yesterday to offer a far more aggressive defense, drafting plans to call a variety of witnesses and asking committee Republicans for three to four days to present their arguments instead of the single day they had been allotted. Such a move would force the panel to delay impeachment votes scheduled to start Thursday and could complicate plans to wrap up the impeachment debate in the House by the year's end.
Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) offered no response last night, although Republicans accused the White House of trying to stall until the next House takes office in January with five more Democrats.
As both sides prepared for next week's climactic hearings, scattered negotiations percolated in an effort to find a bipartisan resolution that would allow Clinton to remain in office after accepting condemnation by Congress and possibly paying a financial penalty. But the various sides remained light-years apart, with some Democrats proposing a $300,000 fine and some Republicans insisting on as much as $4.5 million.
The White House kept its distance from any single idea, but officials publicly indicated more interest than before, saying they were "aggressively listening" to any proposals and specifically opening the door to the notion of a monetary payment.
"If members in good faith want to pursue that option and approach representatives here at the White House with that option, we will listen and take anything they say seriously," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.
The day's developments underscored how much the political ground has shifted in the last week or so. After the Democratic successes in the November midterm elections, Clinton advisers grew confident that the House would not vote to impeach the president, even if the committee sent the matter to the floor. The idea of "censure-plus" -- that is, accepting a censure resolution along with some additional punishment such as a fine or a contrite presidential appearance in the well of the House -- had seemingly been taken off the table.
But within the Clinton circle, advisers have experienced a sinking realization that he still faces a genuine threat. The answers Clinton sent last week to 81 questions posed by Hyde aggravated on-the-fence moderate Republicans and even some Democrats who viewed them as evasive. And partisan lines appeared to harden as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) stepped in to rally Republicans.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary member who predicted just after the election that the panel would find a way to "wriggle out" of impeachment, had a far more dire assessment, calling it now "a neck-and-neck vote" on the floor. "The simple arithmetic is this will be decided by one or two votes and that's frightening to me," he said.
Another close Clinton ally who has been canvassing House members estimated that only 10 Republicans are currently likely to oppose impeachment, less than half of previous counts. With an 11-vote Republican margin and at least three Democrats publicly committed to impeachment, that could mean passage.
"There's a concern [in the White House] that they could very well result in a vote and they very well may be facing four months of trial in the Senate," the adviser said. "That's a horrendous thought."
With that in mind, the White House opted for a full-bore attack before the committee. While some advisers had once favored a simple, straightforward defense argument without witnesses, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and special counsel Gregory B. Craig told the committee yesterday that they want three to four days to present multiple panels of witnesses to talk about constitutional standards for impeachment; standards for prosecution of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power; and prosecutorial misconduct and "tainted evidence."
Ruff also objected to Hyde's plan to question the president's lawyers as if they were witnesses, pointing to Watergate when President Richard M. Nixon's counsel, James St. Clair, made an uninterrupted closing argument before the panel.
Republicans noted that St. Clair also answered inquiries during a separate appearance before the panel. "The president said he wanted the American people to know more rather than less, sooner rather than later," said committee spokesman Paul McNulty. "Eleven months later, the president's lawyer is admitting that he has no exculpatory evidence and wants to make a presentation but not answer any questions about it. What are they afraid of?"
Hyde had offered the White House a single day to present its case, next Tuesday, and fellow Republicans saw the request for more time as politically calculated. "These are all red herrings," said a GOP committee aide. "It's just obviously a play to move this into next year, where they have more votes."
Republican leaders are determined to finish deliberations on impeachment by the end of the year, and DeLay said that members who participated in a Wednesday conference call were "unanimous" in that view.
Aides said that the bulk of the conference call was devoted to discussions of members' holiday plans and the absolute need to have the vote before Christmas week.
Hyde had scheduled committee votes to begin Thursday and conclude by Saturday, with floor action planned for the next week.
The White House countered that Hyde had pledged last month that "the president's counsel will have unlimited time to present his witnesses." The Clinton request "certainly gives them enough time to wrap up this year, no question about it," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr "had four years to investigate the president, the committee had three months. So asking for three or four days to defend the president of the United States doesn't seem unreasonable."
The White House would not identify its planned witnesses, but aides said it was highly unlikely it would call the major players in the drama, such as Monica S. Lewinsky, Betty Currie or Vernon E. Jordan Jr. Aides have already ruled out an appearance by the president himself.
As part of its increasingly assertive posture, the White House yesterday also took direct aim at Hyde, which it has largely avoided doing in the past out of deference to his reputation for fairness. Aides all but called him a hypocrite, pointing to a Los Angeles Times article contrasting Hyde's recent sermons on the sanctity of truthfulness with his 1987 statements defending Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North's lies to Congress.
"It just seems to me too simplistic" to condemn all lying, Hyde said then. "In the murkier grayness of the real world, choices must often be made."
Lockhart called that "remarkable dexterity" by the chairman. "In 1987, he made a rather impassioned and convincing argument that circumstances allow lying. And so I think, given the fact that those comments were made, his remarks now . . . indicate more about politics than about conviction."
Committee Democrats separately assailed Hyde for asking the Secret Service to identify agents protecting the president at his 1994 high school reunion when he had a testy conversation with Dolly Kyle Browning, who claims to have had an affair with Clinton. The request, made last week, was quickly dropped.
McNulty said Hyde "stands by the statements" he made a decade ago. "In Iran-contra, a difficult choice was made between two evils by those who were concerned about the loss of life that could result from the disclosure to Congress of certain financial support for covert action," McNulty said. "No one lied under oath after swearing to tell the truth, and no one ever lied for personal gain."
Hyde also issued a blistering statement denouncing "White House press agents" for attacking him, noting that Democrats have changed their criticism of impeachment proceedings numerous times.
"In sum, our inquiry is either too broad or too narrow, too slow or too fast, Judge Starr is either talking too little or too much. Now that's my definition of chaos," Hyde said. "One gets the impression from the Democrats that the left hand doesn't know what the far left hand is doing."
Beyond the polarized public rhetoric, some members of Congress and White House allies continued to explore possible deals. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a Judiciary member, said a small group of House Democrats with the support of Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) opened a quiet dialogue yesterday with Republican moderates.
Boucher said the effort had three goals: to reach a consensus with like-minded Republicans that a censure resolution should be debated both in the Judiciary Committee and on the House floor; to prevail on the committee and House leaders to allow the debates; and to draft language that can appeal to a broad bipartisan spectrum of the House.
"Let me stress that the drafting of censure language is way secondary right now," Boucher said. "The key is achieving consensus on the floor and in committee."
Boucher, tasked by committee Democrats to draft the panel's preferred censure resolution, was invited Thursday by Gephardt to confer with Reps. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Paul McHale (D-Pa.), all of whom are working on censure alternatives. The group, since joined by Judiciary member Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), put together a list of GOP middle-of-the-roaders and began calling them yesterday.
But there was much ground separating the various sides. At least one Republican has suggested a fine of roughly $4.5 million to account for the money Starr spent investigating the president since he denied a relationship with Lewinsky in January, according to Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), while Democrats have suggested a penalty comparable to the $300,000 House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had to reimburse the ethics committee after he was investigated.
According to sources, retiring Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), an institutionalist who has forged close relationships with Republicans during 34 years in the House, has begun discussing censure with several members. Other centrist Democrats, such as Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.), have also reached out. "There are discussions across parties with people who believe the process should reflect both the views of the American people and punishment for the president," Roemer said, adding that Democrats hope to make enough Republicans comfortable with opposing impeachment. "Essentially, they have to have a place to land instead of impeachment."
Roemer emphasized that Republicans expect both a harsh condemnation of the president's behavior and a penalty, as well as some admission of wrongdoing. "It would not be censure light. It would be censure with fangs," Roemer said. "It will be censure which bites the president."
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
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