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Clinton Set for Censure; House May Not Be

Clinton,TWP President Clinton apologizes to the American people and Congress Dec. 11. (The Post)

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  • By Dan Balz and Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page A1

    President Clinton's dramatic apology and public appeal for congressional "condemnation" yesterday reflected deepening concerns among his allies about his prospects for avoiding impeachment next week and their fears that a compromise resolution to censure the president may never reach the House floor.

    A grim-faced Clinton left the Oval Office and walked the few short steps to the White House Rose Garden just after 4 p.m. yesterday. He appeared slightly nervous as he began to read a new statement of contrition designed to jolt public consciousness over what is happening in Washington and persuade the moderate Republicans who will determine the outcome in the House to vote against impeachment.

    In the five-minute statement, Clinton acknowledged that he must be held accountable by Congress for his failure to tell the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and was prepared for the consequences. "Should [Congress and the American people] determine that my errors of word and deed require their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that," he said.

    Clinton's sudden appearance, which was announced less than half an hour before he spoke and came just minutes before the House Judiciary Committee voted the first article of impeachment against him, occurred on what surely must have been the lowest day of his presidency.

    The very fact that Clinton felt the need for another statement of apology after several attempts earlier this year to express his regret for taking the country through a year of turmoil underscored what he and many of his advisers know – that the worst may still lie ahead unless something dramatic occurs to stop it.

    The dark mood among Clinton's allies was expressed by one outside adviser, who described in the most pessimistic terms the atmosphere yesterday morning as White House officials and others discussed their strategy for swaying enough Republican votes over the next week to prevent impeachment. "You needed a high-powered halogen light it was so gloomy," this adviser said.

    The mood among Clinton's advisers and allies came at the end of a week in which they made every effort to blunt the momentum for impeachment in the House. Clinton advisers believe the president's lawyers made the best defense possible before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. But only one additional Republican announced opposition to impeachment.

    White House officials hope that undecided Republicans who are back in their districts will hear from constituents opposed to impeachment. And they will continue their quiet lobbying one on one. But they appear to have resigned themselves to the reality that they will have no firm count until next week's vote, if then, and therefore no assurance that the president is out of danger.

    Clinton and his advisers spent the past several days discussing the advisability of another personal apology. With Clinton preparing to leave early today for the Middle East, he and his advisers feared that the absence of a public statement from the president would dog him throughout his meetings overseas.

    His advisers also worried that without a public statement from the president until he returns early next week, their efforts to mobilize the public and sway enough Republicans to vote against impeachment and demand a vote on censure could be irreparably damaged.

    But the president's failure to address the issue that many congressional Republicans said they wanted to hear about – an acknowledgment that he lied in the Paula Jones deposition and before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury – may make it more difficult to force a censure vote next week.

    "I was disappointed," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) in a statement issued by his press secretary. "It was what I hoped he wouldn't do. He makes it harder for members of Congress to do what I think is the right thing and it makes me think he still doesn't get it. Once again, a wasted opportunity."

    Shays remains opposed to impeachment and against censure, his aide said.

    Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) expressed sympathy for the beleaguered president but said nothing Clinton did yesterday changes the facts of the case. "The president's behavior has demonstrated a lack of respect for his employees, friends and family, and a reckless disregard for the importance of always and in every way being honest," he said.

    Tim Butler, press secretary to Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who will preside over impeachment proceedings on the House floor, quoted LaHood as saying after watching the president on television that Clinton's remarks would "not have much effect" on his decision. "It was not a Hail Mary," Butler said.

    White House officials and congressional Democrats have been continually rebuffed this week in their efforts to win support from Republican congressional leaders for a guarantee that a censure resolution will be allowed on the House floor as part of next week's debate on impeachment.

    One administration official said he put the chances of censure at "10 percent – real low" and described the White House strong embrace of censure the past few days as a sign of panic among the president's closest advisers.

    White House Chief of Staff John Podesta spoke Thursday with House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) about allowing a censure resolution on the House floor, but according to one White House official received a negative response.

    Beyond Livingston's resistance, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay remains adamantly opposed to allowing a censure vote. "The act of actually getting people to agree to sit down and discuss it would be amazing," said Michael Scanlon, DeLay's spokesman. "And the act of even coming up with the language would be even more amazing." He added: "It's not viable, procedurally, constitutionally and politically."

    Clinton has been under increasing pressure from advisers and wavering House members to make another public statement about the Lewinsky matter. Clinton discussed the idea with advisers on Thursday night, but said he had other things to do before making a decision. He went off to help his daughter Chelsea with a paper for a course at Stanford about the Jesuits, an order of Roman Catholic priests.

    That night, however, a draft copy of remarks prepared for the president – but never seen by Clinton, according to a senior adviser – was leaked to MSNBC. The leak infuriated Clinton and top White House officials and added to the pressure on Clinton to try to use his powers of communication to turn the debate in the House his way.

    Yesterday morning, as he prepared for a meeting with Central American presidents on the damage relief for Hurricane Mitch and for his journey to the Middle East, Clinton agreed to try to come up with satisfactory language for a new statement of contrition.

    About 3 p.m., Clinton informed his advisers he was ready to deliver it, and the news media was quickly alerted. He huddled with aides in the Oval Office as White House officials quickly set the stage in the Rose Garden and made final changes in the document.

    Once he began reading the statement in the gathering shadows of a chilly afternoon, it quickly became clear he would not do what many Republicans had suggested, which was to acknowledge that he lied before the grand jury and in the Jones deposition.

    "Others are presenting my defense on the facts, the law and the Constitution," he said, alluding to the two-day presentation to the Judiciary Committee by White House lawyers this week. "Nothing I can say now can add to that."

    White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said later there was no real debate about whether he should address the subject of lying. "The president is not going to say this because he doesn't believe it," Lockhart said.

    "He will go to virtually any legitimate length to avoid being impeached, except to say he lied," said one outside adviser. "Because he is convinced, and everyone around him is convinced, that he will be indicted. If he admits it, it's a slam dunk."

    In contrast to the speech he made Aug. 17 after testifying before the grand jury, in which had spent part of his time attacking Starr and his critics, Clinton acknowledged the "harsh words" of his opponents and quoted Benjamin Franklin's "admonition that our critics are our friends, for they do show us our faults."

    Clinton said he was "profoundly sorry" for misleading "the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave into my shame."

    He would give anything to undo the damage he has done, Clinton said, quoting several lines from an 1879 translation of a poem he had been sent – the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – about the impossibility of erasing history. "Nothing – not piety, nor tears, nor wit, nor torment – can alter what I have done," Clinton said. "I must make my peace with that."

    With the House Judiciary Committee nearing its vote on the first of four articles of impeachment, Clinton said he understood "that accountability demands consequences, and I'm prepared to accept them." Condemnation by Congress, he added, would "pale in comparison" to the pain he has caused his family.

    Saying his fate now rests in the hands of the public and the Congress, he declared he was ready for rebuke or censure. He never uttered the word impeachment.

    When he finished, Clinton turned and with head slightly bowed, walked back to the Oval Office. Two shouted questions from reporters echoed eerily as he walked.

    White House officials said yesterday that with few moderate Republicans willing to make any commitments it will be an excruciating week ahead for the president and his team.

    "We don't have the votes, they don't have the votes," a senior official said. "There are a group of people who are undecided and they're not going to decide for several days. For some Republicans on the Hill, what he [Clinton] says will never be enough. But I think the public, whether it likes it or not, is waking up to see this is coming. The more people see what's going on, see the facts, the law and the Constitution, the better we do. But it's going to be a long week coming up."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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