By John F. Harris and Juliet Eilperin
Congressional Republicans, however, expressed scant support yesterday for such a compromise and instead pressed on with planning for a House floor vote before Congress adjourns next month on whether to launch formal impeachment proceedings in response to allegations of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power presented in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Seeking to avert a full-scale impeachment probe, Clinton's legal team yesterday aggressively lobbied to undermine the Starr report with the House Judiciary Committee. Buried in the thousands of pages of documents released Monday along with the videotape of Clinton's testimony were "exculpatory statements" from Lewinsky's grand jury testimony that Starr deliberately left out of his report because they hurt his case, Clinton's lawyers wrote in a public letter to the panel.
Starr's report referred only obliquely -- and without direct quotation -- to Lewinsky's testimony that "no one ever asked me to lie and I was never promised a job for my silence" about her sexual relationship with the president, instead focusing on what the independent counsel contended was an implicit agreement that Lewinsky would swear out a false affidavit in the Paula Jones lawsuit denying an affair with Clinton.
"The decision by Mr. Starr to specifically exclude Ms. Lewinsky's exculpatory statements and express denials raises grave questions about the fundamental fairness" of Starr's report, wrote White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and David E. Kendall, Clinton's private attorney.
A Starr deputy, Robert J. Bittman, fired back, writing that Lewinsky's testimony did describe her discussions with Clinton about developing misleading "cover stories." The Clinton team, he sarcastically observed, now appears to find Lewinsky credible on some subjects but not on others.
Despite the renewed public fight, however, internal discussions among White House legal and political advisers have focused heavily in recent days on whether it is possible to reach an early cease-fire on Capitol Hill. The hope, according to several advisers in and out of the White House, it is to avert an impeachment inquiry by tilting legislative momentum in the direction of some lesser punishment for Clinton's admitted inappropriate relationship and his misleading statements about it.
As part of this campaign, White House officials signaled Clinton's willingness to consider making a dramatic personal appearance at the Judiciary Committee before the panel votes on whether to seek House approval of a formal impeachment inquiry. While these signals set off feverish speculation about Clinton's plans, as a practical matter no presidential appearance seemed imminent.
In part, this is because White House officials said Clinton would appear only as part of an agreement on a prompt resolution of the Lewinsky inquiry, and Republicans so far have shown no willingness to short-circuit their deliberations on whether the president should be evicted from office.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said it was "very premature" to discuss reaching an agreement with the White House on any sort of punishment, and that he could risk angering the Senate by hastily ending the panel's work. Clinton could speak to the committee once it began public hearings, which could follow a House vote approving a formal inquiry, he said.
"He would be welcome," Hyde said. "I wouldn't want him to think we want to embarrass him but if he wanted to testify, we would hear him."
Despite such skepticism, the White House strategy is aimed at moving both public expectations and congressional debates toward alternatives, including a potential "censure-plus" option. The censure part would be a formal reprimand deploring Clinton's conduct, and the plus would be some additional punishment, presumably a financial penalty. Officials familiar with the strategy said the White House has not endorsed a particular approach or made any formal overtures to congressional leaders. But it is encouraging efforts by intermediaries -- including former Clinton White House counsel Lloyd Cutler -- to sound out support for censure on Capitol Hill.
"He's in touch with us, we're in touch with him," a senior White House official said of Cutler's entreaties on behalf of a compromise. "He's not acting as an agent of the White House, but we find what he's doing to be constructive."
While reaching a compromise punishment would be Clinton's preference, the White House hopes to gain even if such a deal cannot be brokered by convincing the public that it is working hard to bring the Lewinsky controversy to a rapid conclusion.
Public polls and the White House's own surveys show strong majorities wanting to keep Clinton in office, and eager for closure in a matter they find distasteful. Some Clinton aides say Republicans are courting a backlash if they are seen as trying to prolong the matter.
"About two-thirds of the public says censure and move on," said one senior Clinton political strategist. "That's about as good a consensus as we're going to get on this case."
Republicans, many of whom note that the idea of a presidential censure is found nowhere in the Constitution, pledged to stay their current course. "This is the perfect marriage between pure spin and public plea bargaining," Terry Holt, spokesman for House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio), said of the censure speculation. "There's a bipartisan commitment to following an orderly process."
One leading plan for bringing closure has been pushed in recent days by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who said Sunday that Clinton should explain himself before the Judiciary panel, and in exchange the House should agree to act quickly and end the "water torture" of lengthy impeachment proceedings.
Clinton, who basked yesterday in warm words from visiting South African President Nelson Mandela, declined in an earlier appearance in New York to comment when asked by a reporter about Kerry's idea. But White House press secretary Michael McCurry, while declining to endorse the idea expressly, said, "What we want to do is work with Congress to find a course of action that is the correct one, that will have bipartisan support, that the people of Congress together agree is the right course for our nation and that the people of the United States of America will support."
White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles spoke Monday with Kerry about his idea, as did House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Kerry, in an interview, said Gingrich "thought it was an interesting idea and we should talk about it," and White House officials expressed "no judgment one way or the other but said it's an interesting idea worth exploring."
The move came as both Republicans and Democrats were planning to discuss setting a time line for the process in a bipartisan leadership meeting this morning.
In a letter to Gingrich yesterday setting the stage for their first session since the Judiciary panel last week erupted in partisan battles over the release of the Clinton videotape, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) asked Republicans to agree to "a responsible resolution" that "may be achieved expeditiously." Hoping to revive earlier pledges of bipartisanship, Gephardt asked the speaker to set out "a reasonable timetable . . . holding out the promise of a prompt conclusion."
Gephardt's letter also asked Gingrich to "join me" in asking Starr for any remaining evidence he did not send to the House in the 17 boxes that accompanied his report. "How can we decide on the fairness of the process without determining what is in the interviews, grand jury testimony, and boxes of documents that for totally unexplained reasons the independent counsel withheld?"
It was not clear yesterday, however, what information Starr did not give to Congress. A source familiar with Starr's investigation, responding to Gephardt's letter, said "the only thing they withheld are really disgusting and extraneous details."
Democrats expressed some hope that Clinton might be able to capitalize in the coming days on the public's favorable impression of his grand jury testimony aired Monday. An overnight poll conducted by presidential pollster Mark Penn showed support for Clinton rising, and support for impeachment falling, results that mirrored some public polls.
Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who had been scathing in her criticism of Clinton's behavior, offered some more encouraging words after weighing his grand jury testimony. She spoke of "my admiration for his equanimity in going through all that" and, asked if there was evidence for impeachment in the testimony, "There is evidence, but it is very limited."
What may have been the most encouraging development for Clinton yesterday came in an East Room reception for Mandela. The Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., stood in defense of Clinton, saying, "It's time to leave our president alone." King's sermon provoked chants of "Leave him alone! Leave him alone!" from the audience.
Mandela called Clinton "my friend, whom I respect so much." Recalling Monday's standing ovation for Clinton at the United Nations, he added: "It sent a strong message as to what the world thinks of President Clinton. . . . We have often said that our morality does not allow us to desert our friends, and we would want to say tonight: We are thinking of you in this difficult and distressing time in your life."
Clinton hugged Mandela after the effusive show of support.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Guy Gugliotta, Phylicia Oppelt and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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