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President Rejects Appeals to Resign

Hyde House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde after a CBS interview Sunday. (Bill O'Leary — The Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A1

    House Republican leaders called on President Clinton to resign yesterday to spare the country the tumult of the first impeachment vote on the House floor in 130 years. But hours before they spoke, the president had made clear he would not even consider leaving the White House voluntarily.

    In separate statements, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said resignation was the only way to avert the looming constitutional clash on Thursday when the full House takes up four articles of impeachment approved by Hyde's committee.

    "I think the president should step down," Hyde said in one of two television appearances he made the day after the Judiciary Committee completed its two-month impeachment inquiry. "I think he could really be heroic if he did that. He would be the savior of his party. . . . It would be a way of going out with honor. If he doesn't, it's hard to predict what the consequences are."

    "I would just hope," said DeLay, "that the president would put the American people ahead of his own ambitions and resign." Armey said he does not presume to advise the president, but "if it were me, I would have done so long ago."

    Clinton, though, flatly rejected the suggestion even before it was made. "I have no intention of resigning," he said during a news conference in Jerusalem, where he was in the midst of a four-day trip to stabilize the Middle East peace process. "It's never crossed my mind."

    And irritating many of the undeclared House Republicans back in Washington who have demanded more confession, the president again said he would not admit to breaking the law by lying under oath about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, in an eleventh-hour effort to head off impeachment. "I can't do that," he said, "because I did not commit perjury."

    House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have largely avoided speaking out on impeachment, but Armey, DeLay and Hyde were sent out to the television talk shows yesterday as the public face of the Republican congressional leadership. While Republicans have called on Clinton before to resign as penance for his behavior, the message took on added meaning just four days before the impeachment vote.

    Given Clinton's apparent determination not to follow Richard M. Nixon's example by resigning before impeachment came to the floor, both the White House and congressional leaders prepared for a historic vote that virtually everyone involved deemed too close to call. DeLay, the chief GOP head-counter, rated the chances of impeachment at "50-50," while White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta called it "up for grabs." Inside Clinton's circle, the gloom deepened as aides and private advisers, while not surrendering, steeled themselves for the worst and began making contingency plans in case Clinton does become only the second president ever impeached by the House of Representatives.

    "The first inkling that he could be in danger . . . has begun to dawn on people," said one person in that circle. "There's a greater resignation that it's going to get out of the House and a greater amount of second-guessing about why we didn't take it more seriously."

    The odds for Clinton grew longer Saturday night when Livingston, backed by Hyde and outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), decided to block any floor vote on a Democratic alternative proposal to censure the president instead of impeach him.

    White House strategists had been relying on censure as the key to persuade moderate Republicans to vote against impeachment, secure in the knowledge that they could still take a strong stand against Clinton's behavior in concealing his relationship with Lewinsky during civil and criminal proceedings.

    In the face of Livingston's decision, the White House and its Democratic allies have embarked on a two-pronged defense strategy, gentle in private and in-your-face in public. Off camera, Clinton aides and surrogates are wooing about two dozen undecided Republicans to break from party ranks. Before the microphones, they vowed to mount a challenge to Livingston's censure decision on the floor and to arouse what they see as a sleeping giant in the form of a public that does not want Clinton impeached but is only now beginning to realize that it might happen.

    "I would like to leave with the American people the notion that their will, as expressed in not just the polling but in the election that took place just a few weeks ago, ought to be given some count in this," Podesta said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

    And if the people are not outraged that their will is being ignored, White House aides said, they should think about the prospect of weeks if not months more of paralysis in the capital if the issue goes to the Senate for a trial. "This is going to make the government shutdown look like a picnic," said presidential counselor Paul Begala, who will be among the aides dispatched to today's morning talk shows.

    More problematic will be attempts to overrule Livingston and force a censure vote. Democrats plan to offer a "motion to recommit" the impeachment resolution, in which they would state that Clinton deserves censure rather than removal from office. After the chair presumably rules that out of order, Democrats would appeal the ruling and, if enough Republicans join them in that vote, the House would have to consider the censure motion.

    "They're going to have to face this issue, whether the Republican leadership wants them to or not," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." Gephardt tried to sweeten the censure pot by endorsing the idea of a voluntary fine to be paid by Clinton "based on the costs of his dragging this out" by not telling the public the truth from the beginning.

    But the maneuver Gephardt has in mind amounts to a parliamentary "Hail-Mary pass" because it would force members of the GOP majority to defect on a procedural vote, which is extremely rare. Republican leaders already have prepared for such a move in a conference call with DeLay, in which members across the ideological spectrum said they would maintain party unity on such a vote.

    Pessimistic about their chances, Democrats said they may employ additional procedural tactics to provoke havoc on the floor Thursday. One Democratic leadership aide recalled that Republicans have staged floor protests of their own, such as their 1985 walkout to protest the decision by the then-majority Democrats to seat an Indiana Democrat after a closely contested election.

    "This hits tilt. This is as big as it gets," the aide said. "There's no way this is going to go peacefully."

    With the Judiciary Committee's decisions finished Saturday, House leaders mapped out plans for the next few days. The committee report will be made available to members Wednesday, followed by party caucus meetings in which Hyde and Gephardt plan to address their members.

    The impeachment debate will open at 10 a.m. Thursday and last much of the day. Lawmakers will spend several hours debating the impeachment resolution as a whole Thursday, before voting in succession on each of the four separate articles alleging perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. According to Armey spokeswoman Michele Davis, the House will extend the usual one-hour debate time allotted to a privileged resolution to "at least six hours," although no final decision has been made.

    "The leadership will make sure that every member who wants to speak will have ample opportunity to do so," Davis said.

    Hyde will manage the Republicans' floor time, choosing who speaks and in what order. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Judiciary Democrat, will do the same for his party, although Democrats indicated yesterday that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a senior member of the panel and an agile debater, will play a major role in their side of the debate.

    Beyond the articles themselves, the House would also have to vote on at least three additional resolutions if it decides to impeach the president, according to Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.). These include choosing several members who vote for impeachment to be managers on behalf of the House to try the case in the Senate; sending a formal message to the Senate notifying it of the House action; and authorizing funding and other logistical requirements for the trial.

    In the four days left before the vote, both sides will be engaged in a delicate dance in which they reach out to members who might be sympathetic while trying to avoid appearing like they are lobbying improperly.

    In Israel, Clinton said he would not approach undecided members, but invited them to call him. "If any member wishes to talk to me or someone on my staff, we would make ourselves available to them," he said, "but otherwise I think it's important that . . . they not be put under any undue pressure from any quarter." The goal, Podesta said in Washington, was "to bend ears, not break people's arms."

    Armey, though, accused the president's camp of putting pressure on fence-sitters. "It's perhaps the most intense lobbying effort I've seen this White House mount for some time and it is unseemly," he said on "Fox News Sunday."

    Responding to charges the Republicans have done the same, Delay insisted on NBC: "I have not asked one member to vote one way or another." But Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), an impeachment opponent, scoffed at that on Fox: "I don't think Tom DeLay is aware of his own powers of persuasion."

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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