By John F. Harris
Hoping to quash the congressional impeachment process in its nascent stages, President Clinton in recent days discussed with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) organizing an effort to have Democratic senators sign a letter declaring that none of the allegations or evidence in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation would merit impeachment, according to Democratic sources.
Daschle discouraged the idea, which Clinton apparently first heard from another Democratic senator about a week ago, and for now it has been shelved.
But the effort illustrates the intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying Clinton is doing to ensure his future in office. The skepticism of Daschle and other Democrats in both the House and Senate also illustrated how even lawmakers who want Clinton to remain in office are placing clear limits on what they will do to short-circuit the constitutional process of reviewing the allegations of impeachable behavior that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr presented last month.
The hope, as Democrats familiar with the discussions described it, was to get at least 34 Democrats or more than one-third of the Senate to declare up front that they would never vote to convict. Since two-thirds of the Senate must vote to evict a president, such a letter would make a House impeachment vote moot, for all practical purposes. Clinton, sources said, apparently hoped that the letter could defeat the gathering momentum for a full impeachment inquiry in the House, which is set to authorize the process later this week.
"This is an idea which was generated on the Hill which is not getting much traction, because it's premature," said a senior White House official.
Also yesterday, sources said U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson had appointed an outside expert known as a "special master" to help her determine whether Starr's office illegally leaked grand jury material to reporters, as Clinton's lawyers have complained.
Starr's office has denied illegal leaks, but Clinton's lead private attorney, David R. Kendall, contends that the independent counsel's office has been the source of grand jury material whose publication was damaging to Clinton. Late last month, Johnson decided instead to appoint a special master, whose identity was not revealed, to conduct the inquiry and report back to her.
Clinton's advisers have resigned themselves to the virtual certainty that an impeachment inquiry will be approved by the House this week, but they hope perceptions that the vote was a partisan rush to judgment can turn this legal setback into a political gain.
The House Judiciary Committee will begin its formal deliberations on authorizing an impeachment inquiry Monday, and is planning to vote that day or Tuesday. Democratic sources in the administration and Congress said yesterday they are confident a measure authorizing an open-ended impeachment inquiry will pass with only Republican support, over the objections of Democrats backing a more focused inquiry that would be completed by Thanksgiving.
A day after the last major release of documents from Starr, Clinton's legal and political team yesterday had focused its own vote-counting efforts on the full House floor, in anticipation of a vote authorizing an impeachment inquiry by the end of the week.
On the floor, Clinton's hopes for making the case that the effort against him is a partisan affair are more clouded. A significant number of Democrats are prepared to vote in favor of the impeachment inquiry, which many administration and congressional officials say is all but certain to pass. Estimates on the precise number of these Democratic defectors vary widely. One Democratic source who has consulted with lawmakers said lower-end scenarios would have about 20 Democrats voting with the GOP. A House Democratic leadership aide said the number may be as high as 50; many of these lawmakers are planning to vote yes for both the Democratic inquiry resolution and then, if that fails, the Republican version.
What was striking this weekend was the passive public posture of the White House. Although the Clinton administration usually engages in aggressive public advocacy, on the eve of a vote that is critical to Clinton's future the White House was not sending its representatives on the usual Sunday talk show circuit. Lawyers yesterday did nothing to expand the public defense they offered Friday, when Clinton's team claimed the 4,610 pages of new material released were further evidence of what they said was Starr's tendency to suppress exculpatory evidence.
The strategy of staying quiet, aides said, reflected a confidence that public perceptions of the case are already breaking in Clinton's favor, and that Democratic House members were better positioned to make the case that the process Republicans are proposing is unfair.
The latest release of documents "didn't even lead the news last night. There's no reason to look for opportunities to elevate this story," one White House official said of the quiet weekend. "Not that we're uninvolved, but the ball has now shifted to the congressional realm."
"Whatever was there hasn't caused a huge stir. Without any revelations, it hasn't changed the perception of what we have to do with the Hill and the American public. Our focus is still on the resolution and the Democratic alternative and how we can build on it," said another Clinton adviser outside the White House.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Helen Dewar and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
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