By Dan Balz and Guy Gugliotta
But as Democrats joined with the White House in calling for an end to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation, Republican leaders signaled their intention not to make decisions about the president's future until they have received Starr's report. Several Republicans and one Democratic House member called on Clinton to resign.
Few prominent Democrats went before network television cameras to defend the president on the day after his speech. The tenor of written statements issued from congressional offices reflected the unease with which Democrats greeted the president's Monday night speech. Many of them will now monitor public opinion polls to gauge the president's political strength and await with some nervousness the Starr report.
"Last night didn't give [Democrats] a reason to jump up and defend him," said a congressional Democrat. "They were expecting more contrition than they got."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who was present in the Roosevelt Room at the White House last January when Clinton issued his public denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, said, "His remarks last evening leave me with a deep sense of sadness in that my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered. My heart and thoughts go out to the first lady [Hillary Rodham Clinton] and [daughter] Chelsea." House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said, "I cannot condone the relationship the president has acknowledged and am very disappointed in his personal conduct." Gephardt added that he respects Clinton for accepting responsibility for his behavior and said he hoped Congress and the president could now turn to the country's business.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a longtime ally of Clinton's, called Clinton's speech "difficult to watch" but "necessary." He said he disapproved of the criticism aimed at the Starr investigation. "I thought it would have been better had he left any reference to the independent counsel out of his remarks," Breaux said.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said he was "disappointed" that Clinton had waited so long to try to clear the air, but pleased that the president had provided a "more complete explanation" of his relationship with Lewinsky.
In contrast to other prominent Democrats, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), who competed against Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 1992, offered a strong defense of the president and a sharp attack on Starr. "Some Republicans and Starr want us and the American people to know every lurid detail of the president's sex life," said Harkin, who spoke with Clinton on Sunday. "Quite frankly, we don't want to know and the American people don't want to know. It's almost as if they won't be happy until they put the president in stocks and have a public flogging. I think the American people are going to be fed up with this self-righteous moralism of Starr and some of these Republicans."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, also rose to Clinton's defense. Calling Starr's probe "an inquisition," Conyers added, "The American public has said it's time for the nation to move on, and I agree wholeheartedly that the time has come for the independent counsel to leave the stage and allow the president to return to the governing of this country."
A lone Democrat, however, called on Clinton to resign to spare the country an impeachment inquiry. Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.), who will retire at the end of this Congress, criticized Clinton for "a morally repugnant relationship" and for lying under oath. "I have no vindictiveness to the president at all," McHale said in a telephone interview. "But nor can I accept that the chief executive of the United States can lie under oath and keep his office."
McHale rejected Clinton's contention that his statements in the Paula Jones deposition last January were "legally accurate," as the president said on Monday. "I don't think he told the technical truth, I think he told an unfortunate series of lies," McHale said.
Several prominent Republicans joined McHale in calling for resignation, including former vice president Dan Quayle, House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and Sen. John Ashcroft (Mo.), a probable presidential candidate in 2000. DeLay's call for resignation came even though he had been urged by House GOP leaders to temper his remarks. "It is bad enough that our president is guilty of having an extramarital sexual relationship with one of his young interns," DeLay said. "But it is much more damaging that this president looked the American people in the eye and knowingly lied to us."
Other top Republicans stopped short of calling for resignation or impeachment, but showed that neither Clinton's speech nor public opinion polls indicating the public is tired of the whole investigation will affect their criticism of the president.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) dismissed the president's speech as "a concession, not an apology" designed as "a cold calculation to protect him from legal harm." Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Clinton "deceived the American people in what he said" about his relationship with Lewinsky, "and his speech last night has all the earmarks of further deception."
Still, it was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) whose measured tone reflected the view shared by the majority of those interviewed: that resolution of the scandal can only come "when Judge Starr's report is complete" and Congress decides "if further action is necessary.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) emphasized that lawmakers still lacked enough information to make an assessment of Clinton's behavior, but said the president's speech as "part of a much bigger story." "Until we've seen Judge Starr's report I don't frankly think we know very much," Gingrich said in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Alpharetta, Ga., yesterday.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a frequent if noncommittal raconteur in the past, confined himself to a single paragraph promising "a full, fair and independent review" of the Starr report: "Until then, we simply should not speculate about how the House would proceed."
Many political strategists said it was far too early to judge whether Clinton's speech would mark the beginning of the end of the Starr investigation or whether it would color in any significant way the midterm elections in November.
"I think we're all looking at the polls," said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "You see a tremendous disconnect between attitudes of lot of working journalists and the public. . . . The early snapshots show the public still of a mind to say let's get this over with."
Republicans recognize the danger of overplaying their hand, given public opposition to date for impeachment proceedings. But Democrats privately worried that Clinton's speech had not gone as far as it should have in offering an apology for his actions and they lamented that he had criticized Starr, when such attacks could have been left to his loyalists.
They also said that the failure of White House officials to mount a more public defense of Clinton was a mistake, noting that it was not until early evening before Vice President Gore, who is vacationing in Hawaii, spoke before television cameras to defend the president. "How can you get other people to do it when you can't get the vice president to do it," complained one Democrat.
Aides to Gore said he was hampered because of the lack of television crews on the island of Kauai.
Another Democrat complained that the White House had failed to give lawmakers a clear picture of Monday's presidential testimony before the grand jury, a session that was far more contentious and incomplete than White House reports suggested. "If they're going to spin away to people, they shouldn't be surprised that people on the Hill aren't particularly supportive," he said.
Among many Democrats, there were expressions of compassion for the president and his family. "This is a time to heal," said Rep. John Lewis (Ga.). "We are a compassionate nation and a compassionate people. We are a forgiving people. We have all made mistakes. None of us is perfect. . . . It is now time to move forward."
Others joined the attack against Starr. "An extramarital affair is simply wrong, but ultimately this is a matter that must be resolved between the president and his family," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), of the House Judiciary Committee. "It is regrettable that the president's disclosure did not come sooner. However, far more regrettable are the ruthless tactics that have been employed by Kenneth Starr over the past several years in an attempt to bring down this president."
Not surprisingly, many conservative Republicans issued condemnations of the president. But some moderate Republicans did the same. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), who has worked with the White House on health care and other issues during Clinton's president, called Clinton's behavior "deplorable" and said it could not be dismissed as a private matter.
"This is a question about leadership, not merely about legalities," he said, adding that the episode has "diminished the moral authority" Clinton will need to deal with such issues as Social Security reform and the Asian economic crisis.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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