By Dan Balz and Peter Baker
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) yesterday criticized the White House legal defense strategy, calling on President Clinton and his advisers to abandon what Daschle called "hairsplitting" about his testimony denying a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
The blunt message from the top two Democrats in Congress added considerable weight to a message that other lawmakers of both parties have been sending the White House since the release Friday of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report. Their carefully coordinated statements came as the House Judiciary Committee prepared to release Clinton's grand jury testimony -- including a videotape of the proceedings -- later this week.
With the panel moving forward with a process that could lead to a formal impeachment inquiry, the president's Aug. 17 testimony has emerged as a central issue in the fight over whether he committed perjury and, if he did, whether that would be grounds for Congress to remove him from office.
But the criticism from Daschle and Gephardt underscored the danger for Clinton of continuing to mount a legal defense against perjury even as his allies search for a lesser punishment, such as censure, that they hope can bring the Lewinsky investigation to a close without ending his presidency.
Gephardt and Daschle were reacting to what one Democrat called a "disastrous" performance by the president's legal advisers over the weekend. In a series of appearances on Sunday talk shows, Clinton's lawyers attacked Starr's report and asserted that Clinton's sworn denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, while misleading, did not constitute perjury.
Daschle, who appeared with the president at a party fund-raiser in New York shortly before his statement was released, said he agreed with people "who have grown impatient with hairsplitting over legal technicalities." He added, "The president and his advisers must accept that continued legal jousting serves no constructive purpose. It simply stands in the way of what we need to do: move forward and let common sense guide us in doing what is best for the country."
Gephardt's statement made a similar point: "The considered judgment of the American people is not going to rise or fall on the fine distinctions of a legal argument but on straight talk and the truth. It is time for the president and Congress to follow that common sense for the good of the country."
Both Democrats said Congress should move as quickly as possible to determine what, if any punishment, Clinton should receive. Daschle said Congress should return after the November elections, if necessary, to resolve the matter. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) already has said he hopes Congress will not formally adjourn next month so that his panel can continue its deliberations and present its recommendations to the House for a vote.
The second-guessing over the appearances by David E. Kendall, the president's personal lawyer, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and other members of the White House legal team was also going on inside the White House, where officials sought to shift attention away from Clinton's contention that he was "legally accurate" if misleading in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case back to the president's admissions of wrongdoing.
"We're not in an attack mode," said one White House adviser. "We're in a forgiveness mode."
But another senior official expressed exasperation with critics of the White House strategy. "What they want us to do is help make it go away, but I'm not sure the course they're recommending is going to make it go away as quickly as they like."
Those comments reflected the complicated dilemma Clinton now faces. As long as he is in legal jeopardy, either from Congress or the independent counsel, his lawyers will resist any acknowledgment that he lied under oath. But that very defense may hinder efforts to find a compromise short of impeachment, particularly before the November midterm elections.
White House officials are particularly worried about further erosion in Clinton's political standing, particularly with lawmakers in tough campaigns this fall. Several Democrats said yesterday the list includes Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), Harry Reid (Nev.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.).
The plight of these politicians highlights the Democratic Party's awkward bind. With less than two months before Election Day, Democrats are being warned not to embrace the defense of Clinton offered up by his lawyers, but they also understand that they could hurt themselves and the party as much by abandoning the president.
On a day in which he helped raise $4 million for the party, Clinton sought to reassure Democrats. "Go talk big, go tell people not to be complacent," he told 400 supporters at a fund-raising dinner in New York last night. "Tell them not to worry about the adversity -- adversity makes people come out and show up -- witness your presence here tonight."
On Capitol Hill yesterday, Republican leaders decided to postpone a potentially partisan fight over what powers the Judiciary Committee should have for conducting its review of the Starr report. Sources said the two parties are so badly divided on such issues as whether Hyde should have unilateral subpoena power that leaders decided they did not want an ugly floor fight at this preliminary stage in the process.
But as divided as House members may be over some of the procedural questions, a vote to open a formal impeachment inquiry appeared increasingly likely now that lawmakers have had a weekend to digest Starr's report.
Hyde predicted that as part of any impeachment inquiry the Judiciary Committee might probe other allegations Starr has been investigating, including Whitewater and the improper acquisition by the White House of FBI files on hundreds of Republicans.
"It appears there could be more to come, and we would consider ourselves duty-bound to consider whatever he sends us," Hyde said, adding that the panel could investigate these allegations of wrongdoing on its own as well. "The criterion is whether they are substantive and credible, and might lead to impeachment, which is the same criterion we are considering now."
But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a committee member, called that approach "ludicrous," adding, "These are the Clinton-haters who have the sense that there's not enough here to get them."
A vote on that question, however, will not come before the Judiciary Committee concludes a preliminary review of the still-secret materials sent to Congress last week with Starr's report.
Release of the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony would give the country a look at what, by all accounts, was an extraordinarily contentious and combative encounter between the president and Starr's attorneys.
The committee could also release an appendix to the report that runs more than 2,000 pages. Other materials that could be released include portions of the grand jury testimony given by Lewinsky, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Betty Currie, the president's secretary, who often cleared Lewinsky into the White House and who ended up with some of the gifts Clinton had given to the former White House intern.
Hyde and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top-ranking Judiciary Democrat, said the committee will meet Wednesday or Thursday in executive session to consider whether to release any of the materials, beginning with the question of what to do about the president's grand jury testimony. The committee is working against a Sept. 28 deadline in this phase of its work.
Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), who has examined the materials that are being stored in the Gerald R. Ford House Office Building, said he doubted that the evidence would dramatically change the dynamics of the current debate over impeachment.
"I believe, and it's my expectation, that the sum and substance of the relevant facts have been set out in the independent counsel's report," Canady said. "I think most of the story has been told in the report. I don't think any shocking revelations are going to come out of any other source."
Hyde also served notice to the White House and other allies of the president that he will not tolerate efforts to undermine members of the committee by circulating damaging or derogatory material about their personal lives.
"Efforts to intimidate members of Congress or interfere with the discharge of their official duties in relation to the impeachment matter could constitute a violation of federal criminal law," Hyde said in a letter to committee members.
Hyde asked to be informed immediately of any such activity, adding, "The committee is prepared to conduct a swift investigation of such reports and refer all allegations of wrongdoing to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution."
White House officials continued to take heart from public opinion polls showing Clinton's approval rating still strong, although not all of them remain sanguine that the polls will slow the momentum in Congress toward impeachment proceedings.
Clinton's advisers plan to augment their defense team by bringing in two new people: Gregory Craig, currently the director of policy planning at the State Department, and Steve Richetti, a former member of the White House office of legislative affairs.
Craig, a former law partner of Kendall's and former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), is expected to serve as a bridge between the legal and political teams at the White House. Richetti's responsibility will be to work closely with Democrats in Congress, particularly the Senate.
One Democrat said that amounts to a holding action until Congress may be willing to consider a censure motion rather than impeachment.
"Everybody figures we get to a censure resolution eventually -- not impeachment," this Democrat said. "But Republicans don't want to get there between now and the election. So they need to make sure there is no erosion in the president's position, then manage the election process and then design the endgame."
But the president's allies concede that an impeachment inquiry is likely and worry that it may be difficult to shut off once it begins.
Many advising the White House share the sentiments expressed by Daschle and Gephardt. The president yesterday issued a statement that tried to show his sensitivity to that argument without giving up his legalistic defense.
"The president's lawyers have said and many independent observers agree that Mr. Starr's allegations would not support a case of perjury in a court of law," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy. "Nevertheless, the president has made clear that he does not want the work of his lawyers to get in the way of his admission that he had an improper relationship and he misled people to keep it private. No legalisms should obscure the fact that it was wrong, he apologized for it and he has asked for forgiveness."
But privately, some advisers came to the conclusion that it was a mistake to send the lawyers out for the weekend talk shows because the legalistic discussion obscured the president's "contrition mission," as one put it. In particular, several political advisers were harshly critical of Kendall's performance, while touting deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta as the model for what they hope to do publicly.
It was increasingly clear yesterday that Podesta has emerged as the leader of the anti-impeachment drive. Craig and Richetti will report to Podesta and the notion of bringing in a big-gun former member of Congress or someone with similar prominence, while not ruled out, appears to have faded from the priority list, at least for the moment, according to several advisers.
Some advisers believe that it is too early to signal acceptance of a censure because it would simply embolden enemies to press for more. Such a move could have a damaging effect on Democratic prospects in the fall elections, they worry.
Additionally, White House officials believe they are in a weak posture to make any deal with congressional Republicans. "They're not very interested in negotiating with us and neither do we feel in a position to tell them what to do," said one senior official.
Of Starr's 11 counts of possible impeachable offenses, Clinton advisers privately believe that the first two allegations of perjury are the most problematic but that the remaining nine counts cited by Starr of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power get increasingly weak.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Susan Schmidt and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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