By Helen Dewar
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said yesterday President Clinton has lost credibility, stature and the "moral dimension" of his presidency, but he withheld judgment on whether the president should resign or be impeached and removed from office.
Lott said his mention months ago of censure as a possible alternative to impeachment was not meant as a suggested course of action and he now appeared cool to the idea. "That was March. This is the first of September . . . and a lot has happened since then," Lott said, referring to Clinton's acknowledgment he had an affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky after denying it for seven months.
Lott called the president's relationship with Lewinsky "disgusting." He added: "I am very disappointed by what has been coming forward, that apparently these acts did occur in the White House and that he, in effect, lied about it."
Lott, who has had little to say about Clinton since the president addressed the nation about the issue two weeks ago, volunteered his comments at the start of news conference shortly after the Senate returned from a month-long recess.
"As a husband and father, I am offended by the president's behavior," Lott said. But as a senator and congressional leader, he added, he must reserve judgment until independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr submits his report to Congress about potentially impeachable offenses, presumably later this month.
Lott's statement was in line with an earlier go-slow signal from House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), indicating a reluctance on the part of the top GOP leadership to appear overly partisan in pursuit of Clinton. It contrasted with a more aggressive approach by other Republican leaders such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), who is pushing for Clinton to resign.
Despite reserving judgment on Clinton's future, Lott left no doubt that he condemned the president's behavior in the strongest possible terms. He said Clinton had set a "tragic example . . . for the young people of this country," and added: "There is a moral dimension to the American presidency, and today that dimension, that power, has been lost in scandal and in deception."
Lott stressed that the scandal would not undermine unity of the government in the face of terrorist or other threats but questioned whether Clinton could provide the leadership to cope with them.
"Can he provide leadership without the necessary respect and with the problems that he has?" Lott asked. "That's what really matters: Will he, can he, provide leadership at a very critical time, internationally and domestically? And I guess only time will answer that question."
Unlike some other Republicans, Lott did not quarrel with Clinton's decision to go to Russia yesterday. "Obviously the timing is not ideal," he said. But "I do think that if he had canceled at this particular time . . . it would have made perhaps a bad situation even worse."
Lott also cautioned Clinton and the Democrats against confrontational tactics to divert attention from the scandal, saying the president has lost the credibility to blame Republicans if a government shutdown results from a standoff over spending bills for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who had been sharply critical of Clinton's behavior, made only passing mention of him in a Senate speech, saying he "wish[ed] him well" as he left for Russia.
Later, in a CNN interview, Daschle disagreed with Lott, saying there is still "strong support" for the administration and for the office of president. He also said Clinton indicated to him recently that he would have more to say about the Lewinsky scandal "on the right occasion."
In his Senate speech, Daschle accused Republicans of larding appropriations bills with "poison pills" aimed at forcing vetoes and said they would be responsible for any shutdowns. He also reiterated Democratic plans to try to force votes on health care, campaign finance reform and a minimum wage increase.
Vice President Gore, traveling yesterday in Dayton, Ohio, and Chicago, said voters are more concerned about the issues Daschle cited than the scandal. "In the end, these concerns are what I think will guide how people vote this fall," he said.
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