By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
Making public the tape of the four-hour interrogation about Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky could be another damaging political blow for the president following last week's release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's explicit 453-page report about Clinton's activities.
Aides fear the sight of Clinton being grilled -- particularly in moments where he appears angry, defensive or evasive -- could be a far more powerful political image than even the salacious Starr report narrative of his sexual encounters with the onetime White House intern. The tape, they assume, will be shown repeatedly on television networks and possibly used by some Republican candidates in the fall congressional elections.
A GOP congressional aide familiar with the tape yesterday described it as "devastating" for the president. Said a White House official who has not seen it, "We're going to hold our breath and all watch it together. I'm totally dreading it because I'm sure he doesn't" come across well.
The development underscored Clinton's weak position as Congress wrestles with whether to open the first impeachment proceeding against a president since Watergate. With no political leverage, Clinton was unable to negotiate to influence the outcome as the Judiciary Committee's Republican majority pressed forward with disclosure plans, according to his own advisers. While privately trying to keep the tape secret, White House officials offered no strong public protests and acknowledged there was little they could do about it.
"The House is going to have to employ the video however they see fit and we just hope that it's not misused," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "But it will be up to the House to decide."
Despite complaints by Democrats on the Judiciary panel, Republicans signaled their willingness to move forward with the release of Clinton's testimony, as well as that of other key witnesses such as Lewinsky, as early as this week. The committee will meet in secret session to make the decision, expected by Thursday. It could take 24 hours after the vote to prepare the evidence for public release, according to sources.
Similarly, Democrats got nowhere with GOP leaders yesterday as they floated a trial balloon for a middle-ground punishment to head off a formal impeachment inquiry. House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) told a closed-door leadership meeting that he was approached by a senior Democratic lawmaker seeking to find out whether Republicans would entertain a censure resolution, according to GOP sources familiar with the session.
The Republican leadership, the sources said, immediately rejected the offer of censure, which would be a nonbinding resolution offering political symbolism but not any concrete punishment. Even before the meeting, some GOP leaders made plain that they do not consider censure serious enough a punishment for the alleged offenses outlined by Starr.
"It is not an option that holds a lot of attraction," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) told reporters yesterday. "We believe that committing perjury and obstruction of justice, these are feats of enormous consequence, and so there have been members who said they feel that [the censure] option, as it has become touted, trivializes the weightiness of the matter."
While some members have talked individually about the possibility of a censure, Democratic leaders have kept their distance for now and denied a formal entreaty to the opposition. "There is no authorized strategy for censure," said a key congressional Democrat.
The main strategy at the White House for the moment appears to be a holding action. As Clinton goes about his business trying to focus publicly on policy issues, his advisers are scrambling mostly to keep wayward Democrats from straying.
To accomplish that, the White House yesterday brought in a new team charged with fighting the impeachment drive, hiring longtime friends of the administration with connections on Capitol Hill.
Heading the anti-impeachment team will be attorney Gregory Craig, who will be given the title of special counsel. Craig, director of policy and planning at the State Department, "will quarterback the response to the referral" by Starr, Clinton said in a statement. Helping him out will be two former White House lobbyists recruited to return temporarily, Steve Ricchetti and Susan Brophy. Ricchetti has been working as executive director of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, while Brophy moved earlier this year to Portugal, where her husband is U.S. ambassador.
Clinton also has asked three ministers to give him "pastoral care" in the form of weekly prayer sessions to help him understand what got him into trouble in the first place: the Rev. Gordon MacDonald, senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass.; the Rev. Tony Campolo, an evangelical preacher and popular Christian author; and the Rev. Philip J. Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church a few blocks from the White House where the Clintons worship.
The president himself did not address the Lewinsky controversy yesterday, keeping busy instead with a full day of appearances. In a speech to the National Farmers Union, he touted his record in helping agriculture and urged Congress to pass emergency funding to help farmers.
Later, he went to Fort McNair to speak with the nation's top military commanders on the subject of defense readiness. This was an especially sensitive appearance, since the conduct Clinton has already acknowledged -- having sexual relations with a subordinate and lying about it -- would be enough to end a military career. But Lewinsky never came up in the closed-door conversation, according to a military source.
Their meetings with Senate Democrats, the expanded House Democratic leadership and a group of moderates known as the New Democrat Coalition were described as tense at times. Much of these sessions were taken up by the White House team's trying to undo the ill will that Clinton's own lawyers had sown among many Democrats by their appearances on television talk shows over the weekend.
Many Democrats in the Senate meeting agreed with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who Monday scored the White House for what he asserted was a legalistic and misleading defense of Clinton on the question of whether he told the truth in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
Bowles and Podesta basically pleaded no contest and asked Democrats to withhold judgment. "When you say we shouldn't rest on legalisms, we don't plan to," one White House official said, paraphrasing the message to lawmakers. "We agreed we're not fighting on legalisms."
The fact is, however, that the president's lawyers continue to cling tenaciously to a legal argument that Clinton's evasive and misleading answers do not constitute perjury. While aware of the political problems with Clinton's assertion that receiving oral sex did not constitute "sexual relations," the president and his private attorney David E. Kendall will not be moved from their position that his testimony was "legally accurate."
During the Senate meeting, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said Democrats might be better off if Clinton resigned but emphasized that the president would not do so and that his party should respect that, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Biden made clear in a statement later that he was not urging resignation.
Some Republicans, though, took direct aim at the president yesterday. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a resolution calling on Clinton to reimburse the costs of the Starr probe into the Lewinsky matter, charging that he prolonged it through deception and obfuscation. Murkowski produced the first financial accounting of the Lewinsky investigation, estimated at $4.4 million.
McCurry brushed off the idea, saying Clinton "does not owe the taxpayers that money" and suggesting that if he did, Starr should reimburse $35 million for the cost of investigating Whitewater and other matters not addressed in his report to Congress. "If there's a serious effort made in Congress to do that, we'll consider it when the time comes," McCurry said.
Over in the House, Judiciary Committee members wrestled with how much of the remaining sealed evidence to release and top staff members contacted major figures in the case, including lawyers for Lewinsky and Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., to find out whether they had any objections to certain testimony being released.
Lewinsky's lawyers, Plato Cacheris and Jacob A. Stein, met with committee staff members yesterday to express her concerns. Although very personal details about her sexual activities with the president were already made public, Lewinsky wants to limit how much more is released, particularly from her Aug. 26 deposition with two female Starr lawyers where she described the encounters in graphic terms, according to sources.
Lewinsky also is reluctant to have portions of her taped conversations with Linda R. Tripp released because she said many personal things about herself, family and friends not related to the investigation.
As members and a select group of staff members go through the 17 boxes of evidence provided by Starr and the more than 2,000-page appendix, they are compiling lists of material to withhold from public release, such as information about the Secret Service operations, gossip not related to the case, telephone numbers and addresses of individuals and unnecessary sexual details.
Democrats wanted to hold the president's videotape in reserve too. "It's a violation of the bipartisan spirit because [the tapes] don't add anything at all," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Judiciary Democrat. "In fact, they put the president in a very embarrassing position."
Rep. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.), another Judiciary Democrat, emphasized that grand jury testimony is normally held secret. "Republican candidates are clearly drooling in anticipation of the president's testimony in campaign ads," he said.
But Republicans said it was necessary to fully evaluate Clinton's story. "Having read both the written word and actually seen the video of the person who was testifying,it was far more informative to see and hear the person testifying," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) . "Why wouldn't you want the most accurate picture possible if you're interested in getting the truth?"
Staff writers Dan Balz, Helen Dewar, Bradley Graham, John F. Harris and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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