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President's Allies Lobby for Censure

President Clinton President Clinton during a White House ceremony Thursday. (AP)

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  • By John F. Harris and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A1

    The White House yesterday embraced a toughly worded Democratic proposal to censure President Clinton, while administration officials and their allies on Capitol Hill vowed to step up public and private lobbying efforts aimed at ensuring that such a measure is offered on the House floor as an alternative to impeachment.

    With Clinton set to leave early Saturday for a four-day trip to the Middle East, the president last night was weighing with aides whether he should try to alter the debate about his future by making a forthright public statement acknowledging that his conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy deserves some official punishment short of being removed from office.

    No final decision has been made, aides said, but one draft statement being circulated at the White House and obtained by MSNBC would have him acknowledging that "reasonable people" might conclude that his testimony in the Paula Jones case, which the president maintains was misleading but legally accurate, did indeed "cross the line."

    Even if he chooses not to deliver the statement, White House aides have dropped their previous efforts to avoid the perception that they are waging a full-press lobbying campaign to avoid impeachment. Instead, aides acknowledged that they are using every available contact to influence the handful of wavering Democrats and a larger group of some two dozen moderate Republicans to come to the president's aid.

    White House senior aides and an assortment of Clinton allies were all making telephone calls, said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart: "Everyone is talking to everyone they know, trying to get information and make sure their voice is heard." Capitol Hill sources also described an administration effort even more intense than the one Clinton aides described.

    According to a Washington lobbyist who asked not to be identified, a Cabinet member on Wednesday personally called the chairman of his company, a major government contractor, to ask the executive to advocate a "no" vote in conversations with lawmakers from a specific state delegation.

    The lobbyist described the Cabinet member as saying: "We are concerned if this matter goes to the Senate it's going to take up much of the nation's time and expense. Wouldn't that be bad for the economy and for the markets, and distract from the nation's more important problems?"

    Clinton has spoken in recent days about his case with lawmakers, but has not made extensive calls, according to White House officials. The aides said that so far as they know the president is not initiating calls, but is talking with lawmakers in the course of other contacts.

    While his lawyers and Democratic allies have been pressing his case before the House Judiciary Committee, Clinton has had no public words on the impeachment drama in recent days. Aides said this could change today.

    A draft that at least some advisers hope for him to give would be the most blunt acknowledgment by Clinton that he failed in his public and possibly even legal duties during the Lewinsky controversy, rather than merely succumbing to private failings.

    "I expect to be held accountable for my conduct," the draft said. "I am living through the painful, private consequences of my actions. But I know there should be public consequences as well. I am ready to accept those consequences."

    House Democrats are hoping to save Clinton from the distraction and historical ignominy of a Senate trial. They said yesterday they believe that momentum is growing among GOP moderates for a formal reprimand of Clinton – most likely including a stiff fine that is not now part of the Democratic proposal – but that their biggest hurdle will be ensuring such a measure can be voted on by all members.

    House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), in a Wednesday night conversation with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), responded with a terse "no comment" when Gephardt pressed him for an assurance that censure would receive a vote, according to aides to both leaders.

    Hoping to increase public pressure on the Republicans, a group of Democrats was preparing a public statement saying that fairness demanded a floor vote next week on censure. The group included several of the 31 House Democrats who two months ago broke from their party and joined the GOP in approving an open-ended impeachment inquiry.

    Clinton, meanwhile, made clear his willingness to be censured. In conversations with aides, Lockhart said yesterday, the president said he was familiar with the blistering denunciations of him contained in a censure proposal unveiled earlier this week by House Democrats. The statements describe him as having "egregiously failed" to live up to the standards of his office and having made "false statements" about his "reprehensible conduct" with Monica S. Lewinsky. Lockhart said the measure has Clinton's support.

    "The president believes the people who, in good faith, come forward with a reasonable solution to put this matter behind us in a prompt way short of impeachment should be considered," Lockhart said. "And looking at that proposal, I think it meets the criteria."

    Lockhart said he was not prepared to give such a blessing to "censure-plus" proposals, which would insist that Clinton agree to a financial penalty as well. But he said the administration was keeping an open mind.

    As a practical matter, according to a House Democratic leadership aide, it is virtually certain that a financial penalty would have to be added to the proposal if it were to draw Republicans. One problem, Democrats said, is that moderate Republicans – under pressure from public opinion opposing impeachment on one side, and more conservative colleagues on the other – have no incentive to show their hand until the last moment.

    The White House's own mixed signals – before the election aides had signaled privately that Clinton might be open to a fine, then backed off after the strong Democratic showing – have also hurt the censure cause, according to one Democratic source who has been closely involved in the effort to promote censure. "He loves to have it both ways," this Democrat said of Clinton. "One moment he's up and believes he has won this, and the next moment he's frightened" and seems willing to seek a deal to avert impeachment.

    While a strong censure resolution is critical to White House efforts to coax undecided GOP moderates to oppose impeachment, it is equally important to Democratic leaders in attempting to minimize defections.

    So far, only three Democrats – Reps. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.), Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Ralph M. Hall (Tex.) – have indicated they will vote to impeach the president. Democratic leaders are concerned that as many as four more may vote against Clinton, and they view a toughly worded censure resolution as an antidote to even further defections.

    "I think the censure resolution is important for a lot of people in our party to express our displeasure at the president's actions," said House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "And to the extent that helps with a few people with respect to how they're going to vote," it is important to provide the alternative.

    "People want him censured but not impeached, and the tougher the resolution the better," said Rep. Joe Moakley (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee. "Members want to be able to go back home and say, 'See, I did this.'"

    Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said that the censure drive "gives a lot of people the feeling that we are not taking the president's actions lightly but we are acting on them with common sense."

    If the Democrats succeed in getting a floor vote on censure, by one common scenario, it would come after impeachment articles are voted on and fail.

    But there is a trickly calculation in this, some Democrats acknowledge: Once impeachment failed, some Democrats might conclude that Clinton is out of danger and decide not to vote for censure either. Some Republicans who vote against impeachment will want assurances that there will be a viable majority for censure.

    Gephardt, Bonior and other top Democratic leaders have moved gingerly in the past week or so in sounding out rank-and-file Democrats on the impeachment issue. Because the vast majority of the 206 Democrats in the 105th Congress are expected to reject any articles of impeachment under consideration by the Judiciary Committee, a more aggressive whipping effort is not needed – and probably would backfire in the dozen or so cases where members remain genuinely undecided.

    "We have not put together a Tom DeLay-type partisan whip operation on an historic constitutional vote," said Rep. Chet Edwards (Tex.), a Democratic leader, in a slap at the House GOP whip's aggressive effort to impeach Clinton.

    Instead, senior leaders, working in tandem with White House aides, have spent a lot of time listening to the concerns of members, keeping them informed of the likely schedule for next week's extraordinary session, and making sure that everyone can get back to Washington from their districts in time for the final votes.

    Special arrangements are being made to fly Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) back to Washington for the vote. Miller, a prominent liberal, is recuperating from surgery last week to replace his left hip. His doctors have advised that if he makes the trip east, he will have to lie flat on a gurney during the flight.

    "He'll be here one way or another," said Daniel Weiss, a top aide.

    Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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