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White House Attacks Credibility of Impeachment Process

President Clinton met with European leaders Friday as the House debated his impeachment. (AP)

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  • By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A27

    On the eve of the House vote to impeach President Clinton, White House officials turned their attention to the next battle, denouncing Republicans for conducting a "cynical political strategy" designed to force Clinton's resignation and vowing to fight it at every turn.

    As first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called for "reconciliation" throughout the country, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart opened up on the Republicans for what officials believe is a "bait-and-switch" strategy to drive the president from office.

    Vice President Gore added to the attack, charging on the American Urban Radio Network that GOP congressional leaders were "cracking the whip and threatening the members of their party to fall in line" on the impeachment vote. He predicted Republicans would pay a heavy political price if they impeach the president today.

    Clinton spent his day out of public view, attempting to carry on almost as normal, despite the events at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. He monitored developments in Iraq, worked on his upcoming budget and held a summit meeting with the leaders of the European Union. He reported through his spokesman that his mood was "very good."

    Anticipating that the House will impeach the president today, White House officials looked past the House action and mounted an effort to discredit the process and head off an expected wave of calls for the president's resignation.

    Lockhart charged that Republicans have employed a duplicitous, two-step strategy against the president. The first, he said, was a conscious effort "to dumb down" the importance of the House's role in the impeachment process as little more than a grand jury indictment. The second step of the strategy, which he said has been gathering force this week, seeks "to maximize the importance" of the House action and demand that because of its significance, Clinton should resign to spare the country.

    "I think that is a strategy that betrays partisanship and cynicism," Lockhart said.

    Presidential advisers admit they were not fully prepared for the growing chorus for resignation. But they said they plan to do everything they can to defang it.

    "We're going to make sure it doesn't happen," a senior official said. Then, referring to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974 even before a House impeachment vote, he added, "One of the advantages we have is we're not Richard Nixon sitting at 24 percent [in the polls]. The public approves of Bill Clinton and wants him to be president."

    Gore, who did a series of radio interviews, dismissed talk of resignation as fantasy, saying a meteor hitting the Earth was more likely than the president's voluntary departure from office. "People can forget about that," he said of a Clinton resignation.

    Aides said the vice president remarks were not part of any White House strategy, but a reflection of Gore's private feelings and his decision to maintain a high-profile role as presidential defender this week.

    White House officials reiterated Clinton's willingness to accept a bipartisan censure resolution as punishment for failing to tell the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. And they said they hope to find a more receptive audience in the Senate for that approach than they have found in the House.

    They disputed suggestions that their latest attacks on the Republicans could harden partisan lines and prolong, rather than short-circuit, the next phase of the impeachment proceeding. They argued instead that the partisanship of the House process erodes its legitimacy and should be exposed to the American people.

    "The bottom line on this issue is the House set a standard by which they were going to judge this matter and a standard by which they would move forward, and they have fallen well short of that," Lockhart said.

    White House officials watched the House impeachment debate on television throughout the day and some attempted to play down the significance of events with humor. "It's another day at the office," one official said. "War and impeachment."

    This official said many of his colleagues took some solace in their belief that, however significant a House vote on impeachment will be in the history of Clinton's presidency, the vote will occur on party lines. "If this were bipartisan, it would be unbearable," one senior official said.

    Clinton, who has no television set in the Oval Office, tended to other business in a concerted effort to project a president at work on issues important to the country. He was doing "very little," in Lockhart's words, to influence events in the House.

    The president stayed in the residence until about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, then headed over to the Oval Office. After a briefing from national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton talked by telephone about Iraq with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

    He met with White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, and then spent an hour at the residence with Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), a moderate Republican who is still trying to decide how to vote on the impeachment articles. Neither the White House nor Shays's spokesman would characterize the meeting.

    Over lunch and at an early afternoon meeting, Clinton turned his attention to trade and other matters during the twice-yearly U.S.-EU summit that included Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima and European Commission President Jacques Santer. After that, he met with his budget and economic advisers to review the fiscal 2000 budget and in the late afternoon held a meeting with his HIV/AIDS council.

    At yesterday's briefing, Lockhart was asked how Clinton and his wife were handling the pressure of the impeachment process and responded with a laugh that, anticipating such questions, he had stopped in to see the president "to ask him what his mood was. And he reported it to be very good."

    Clinton attributed his mood to having gotten a full night's sleep on Thursday, the Christmas season and the absence of U.S. casualties in the military operation in Iraq.

    Hillary Clinton offered her husband words of praise after participating in a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) event yesterday morning. She said "the vast majority of Americans share my approval and pride in the job that the president's been doing for our country and urged everyone to focus on "so many important issues" other than impeachment.

    "I think in this holiday season, as we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Ramadan, and at the time for reflection and reconciliation among people, we in our country ought to practice reconciliation and we ought to bring our country together," she added. "We ought to end divisiveness because we can do so much more together."

    The president advisers hope that will happen in the Senate, but they made clear they will not shrink from a continuation of the partisan battle that has raged all year.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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