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Clinton Gets 2 Days to Fend Off Impeachment


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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 7, 1998; Page A1

    With partisan lines hardened and Democratic hopes for censure dim, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday offered White House lawyers two days to present a defense of President Clinton and set a schedule for a climactic week in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation that will bring the first vote in a quarter century on whether to impeach a president.

    Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) countered a White House request to present a four-day defense with a tart letter from his chief of staff to the president's lawyers that accused them of "contempt" for committee procedures and raised the question of whether they were simply attempting to delay the committee's deliberations.

    In the letter to White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and special counsel Gregory B. Craig, Hyde's chief of staff, Thomas E. Mooney Jr., proposed that the White House be allotted 30 hours over two days to lay out its case opposing impeachment. He ordered the White House to provide the committee with a list of proposed witnesses and their expected testimony by noon today.

    White House officials, who met yesterday to map their defense strategy, grudgingly accepted, meaning Judiciary Committee sessions running from 9 a.m. until midnight Tuesday and Wednesday.

    "The independent counsel spent four years and $40 million investigating the president," White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said in a statement. "The committee is spending four months doing the same. Our request for four days has now been cut in half. Nevertheless, we will work to defend the president despite these restrictions. We will respond formally to the committee tomorrow."

    Under the schedule outlined in the letter, the majority and minority counsels on the Judiciary Committee will make their presentations on Thursday, with opening arguments on articles of impeachment beginning Thursday night.

    Those arguments will continue on Friday, with the first vote on an article of impeachment possibly coming late that day. The committee's work could spill into Saturday.

    The committee could consider up to four articles of impeachment covering perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, committee Republicans said yesterday.

    Assuming the committee approves one or more articles of impeachment, the full House would take up the issue next week.

    House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) predicted that if the vote were held now, the House would impeach Clinton by a narrow margin, sending the issue to the Senate for a trial. "My sense is, it's about a 50-50 proposition right now," DeLay said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think if we voted today, the president would be impeached. But I think it weighs very heavily on the case as presented by the committee next week."

    DeLay ruled out bringing a censure resolution to the floor as part of the impeachment vote, calling it "a terrible precedent" that "violates the rules of the House."

    Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who has long called for impeaching the president, said he doubted a censure resolution would be part of the resolution sent to the House floor. "Impeachment is the ultimate censure," he said on ABC's "This Week."

    The unyielding comments by House Republicans reflected the deteriorating situation facing the president, who only a few weeks ago appeared to have escaped the prospect of impeachment because of the poor showing by Republicans in the November elections.

    But the elections did nothing to weaken the determination of Judiciary Committee Republicans to vote to impeach the president, and many Republicans in the House say they doubt there will be adverse political effects if the full House does the same. Many Republicans outside Congress believe otherwise, however.

    Clinton's standing took a hit, even among Republicans who believe his actions do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses, when his lawyers submitted his answers to 81 questions posed by the Judiciary Committee.

    Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who opposes impeachment, said yesterday that Clinton "stiffed" the House with his "outrageous" answers.

    "I mean, he still doesn't get it," Shays said on "This Week." "He still doesn't tell the truth."

    The growing prospect that Clinton could be impeached by the House before the end of the year began to crystallize only within the last week -- making the hearings this week and the intervening days before the full House takes up whatever the committee approves far more consequential than the White House had anticipated.

    "Two or three weeks ago, there was a real question whether the House would actually impeach the president," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition."

    He added: "But in the intervening last couple of weeks, I think things have turned against the president."

    The situation presents the White House with difficult choices, namely whether to defend the president aggressively, offer contrition that has been absent since the midterm elections or seek some combined approach designed to thwart a House vote to impeach.

    Both Republicans and Democrats said yesterday the tone of his lawyers' presentation this week could prove decisive.

    "I think the vote count on the floor can be influenced by what happens in committee this week," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a committee member.

    "I think they have to decide, do they want to ram this thing to the wall, and if the Republicans decide they're going to impeach him, make them pay a high price, or figure out some way to short-circuit it," a congressional Democrat said.

    Democrats believe that the public still strongly opposes impeachment and that Republicans will suffer if the House votes to impeach the president. But the White House has yet to develop a strategy to raise the stakes and now has only a few days to do so.

    Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a proponent of censuring the president, called on Republican leaders to allow a floor vote on censure before holding votes on impeachment and disputed Republican whip counts that show only five Republicans prepared to vote against impeachment and about the same number of Democrats willing to vote to impeach.

    "If there was a censure vote allowed on the House [floor], you would find 15 to 20 Republicans voting for it and then voting against impeachment," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said that if the House approves any articles of impeachment, the Senate "will go forward with a trial" -- only the second of a president in the nation's history. He added that he hoped the trial would consume "just a few days to perhaps a few weeks." Others doubt the Senate could finish that quickly, raising the prospect of legislative gridlock for months next year.

    Lott said he had problems with the issue of censuring Clinton, particularly before there was an impeachment trial. "I think we should do a trial if there are articles of impeachment," he said. "After that, you know, we'll just have to see."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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