Aides Debate What Else Clinton Can Do to Sway House Vote
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 8, 1998; Page A1
As White House lawyers prepare to mount a two-day defense of President Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee, presidential advisers are wrestling with the question of whether there is anything Clinton can or should do publicly to try to prevent the House from impeaching him.
Many of the House members who hold Clinton's fate in their hands say they need to hear more from the president: a forthright admission that he lied under oath about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and a stronger statement that he recognizes the grave public consequences of his private misbehavior. But it is not clear to many White House advisers that even that would be enough to sway the votes to block impeachment on the House floor and they fear that it could subject him to criminal prosecution by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr when he leaves office.
The White House's challenge is an echo of the essential conflict Clinton has faced for months -- balancing his political need to confess error and express contrition with the legal need to protect himself from criminal jeopardy. And it is what makes the next few days so consequential for his presidency.
Neither public opinion polls nor the strong Democratic showing in last month's midterm elections has prompted more than a trickle of House GOP members to come out against impeachment. For a White House that has lived on polls, the idea that the House would defy opinion so brazenly is both baffling and frightening.
The strategy for the next week is to force House members -- especially moderate Republicans who now hold the balance of power -- to confront both the political and historical implications of the vote.
For weeks the White House has tried to portray the proceedings in the Judiciary Committee as a sideshow while the president went about his business on behalf of the American people. Now they must call attention to the gravity of possibly removing a president from office. They also hope to knock down the idea, advanced lately by some Republican proponents of impeachment, that the House vote is a routine procedural step and that the more serious decision will come in the Senate.
Clinton remains confident that he has won the majority of average Americans to the cause of keeping him in office, but he and his advisers know that a much smaller group will determine whether he can avoid the historical ignominy of an impeachment vote in the House.
There are perhaps two dozen moderate Republicans who will determine whether an impeachment article will pass the full House. The defense that Clinton's lawyers will mount in the Judiciary Committee today and Wednesday is being staged with this small caucus of swing votes preeminently in mind.
The tone is intended to be factual, aimed at rebutting the popular notion that Clinton committed perjury in either his Paula Jones deposition or his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony. But Republicans have warned that another legalistic, hairsplitting defense could further damage the president's cause, reinforcing the delicate nature of the lawyers' mission today.
"This is the time to strip away all the mythology and all the posturing and get this case on the law," said one White House official.
As his lawyers present the defense, Clinton will be presiding at a conference on Social Security. On Saturday, about the time the House Judiciary Committee hopes to finish voting on articles of impeachment, he will leave for a four-day trip to the Middle East.
The contrast was precisely the symbolism the White House once wanted. But now Clinton advisers are not sure there is sufficient public focus on the historic step the House seems prepared to take. "The country has been Christmas shopping and thinks this matter has been winding down," said a White House adviser. "They're going to be in a state of shock when they see what the House has done."
White House senior adviser Doug Sosnik said House members may be reluctant to cast a partisan vote once they have heard the president's presentation this week and reflect on the seriousness of the issue.
"When most members of Congress retire," he said, "they are quickly forgotten and few people will remember what their specific accomplishments are. This is a vote people will remember where they were. This is one they have to live with the rest of their lives. People are talking about the political calculations of this vote as if it's just another issue before Congress. But at the end of the day, this vote is different."
Clinton has been largely passive in the face of what could happen. Aides portray a president who is paying little attention to the Judiciary Committee proceedings. But others say he is deeply engaged about developments, has made impromptu calls to lawmakers and has attempted to gauge support from allies. He huddled on a White House driveway yesterday for 10 minutes of animated conversation with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) over what Harkin later called "a highly personal matter."
But the frustration for this most political of presidents is that his current predicament doesn't lend itself to either his personal or public powers of persuasion. Moderate Republicans have been influenced more by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) than by Clinton. If anything, Clinton's public statements, particularly the responses to 81 questions from the Judiciary Committee, have offended some of those lawmakers the White House has hoped will vote against impeachment.
Once again White House aides have debated whether the president should make some kind of public statement before the full House takes up any articles of impeachment approved by the committee. So far, they say, nothing formal is planned. Several political advisers, who in the past have encouraged an aggressive public stance, now wonder whether there is anything to be gained.
"Every utterance he has made they have rejected as insincere," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist based in California. "I don't know if they would accept it. I don't know that inside the Republican caucus there is going to be any dynamic created by anything the president does that will lead to a significant group of Republican members making a case that they should do anything other than an up-or-down vote on impeachment."
"If he wants to go out and apologize for the umpteenth time, fine, but it won't do any good," said one longtime Clinton adviser. "This Republican Congress is consumed with hatred for the president. . . . He's not going to go out there and say he committed perjury. He's just not going to do it."
White House aides and outside advisers acknowledge that the momentum that has built up for impeachment is in part a problem of their own making. There was within the president's circle of advisers a palpable sense of relaxation after last month's midterm elections, which saw Republicans unexpectedly lose five seats in the House. According to one outside adviser, deputy chief of staff Steve Richetti was among a small group of advisers then warning against "a false sense of optimism."
Although White House officials recognize that the responses to the Judiciary Committee questions made his situation worse, they argue that committee Republicans should not have anticipated a confession of perjury, given the possibility that Starr's team wants to indict him later.
In fact, some White House lawyers are operating on the assumption that Starr may have submitted a sealed indictment of the president to U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson.
"The White House has assumed from the get-go that the independent counsel would seriously consider criminal prosecution of the president after he left office," said one former administration official.
"That is a core assumption and it explains a myriad of things they have done that on a pure political and public relations basis you would not do. You would try to do what the president did [before], make an apology and confession and move on. But they've always been limited by this core assumption that the independent counsel would seek a prosecution [once Clinton leaves office]."
But a Democratic strategist with close ties to Congress said conditions now have changed. "That may have been a good strategy when you didn't think they were going to report out impeachment and censure was in," he said. "But if that has changed, I don't know whether you can follow that strategy anymore."
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