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Democrats Step Up Push For Censure

Democratic senators Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), left; Richard Durbin (Ill.); Carl Levin (Mich.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) attended a Friday news conference. (Reuters)

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 6, 1999; Page A1

    With President Clinton's impeachment trial drawing to a close, Senate Democrats yesterday escalated efforts to persuade reluctant Republicans to censure the president and senators of both parties pushed to open the Senate's final deliberations to public viewing.

    The effort to resolve such remaining disputes came as House prosecutors and White House lawyers prepared to present the Senate evidence gathered from depositions of Monica S. Lewinsky and two Clinton confidants, including videotaped excerpts, when the trial resumes today after a one-day break.

    Senators who have reviewed the depositions say they contain no bombshells that would alter the course of a trial that seems headed for Clinton's acquittal next week. But the session today will offer television viewers their first opportunity to see Lewinsky, the young woman at the center of the presidential scandal, answer questions about the case.

    Meanwhile, negotiations continued over the drafting of a resolution condemning the president for his conduct in the Lewinsky matter. Most Democrats support such a censure resolution, which would probably be offered after the trial ends, but many Republicans have voiced concern that censure would be unconstitutional or a device for giving Democrats cover for letting Clinton off for his behavior.

    But with the demise of an alternative GOP plan to cite Clinton's misconduct as part of the trial record, the two leading proponents of censure -- Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) -- voiced hope that a toughly worded resolution would pick up bipartisan support. They declined to offer details about their proposal, which has been undergoing repeated modification.

    "I think it's gaining ground," Feinstein said of censure. "I think there is a dominant majority that does not want there to be any misimpressions that the president's conduct is acceptable . . . and wants to make a statement to that effect."

    "There is some movement toward a censure resolution if it's tough enough and bipartisan," said Bennett, a strong Clinton critic. "There is a clear and, in my view, large majority of senators who do not want to see this president get off without any statement of disapproval or reprimand. But whether a majority can coalesce around a single resolution remains to be seen."

    Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a moderate, yesterday joined Bennett, saying: "I feel strongly we should go forward with it. . . . The president will be acquitted, so be it, but we should still say this conduct is wrong."

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), an influential GOP leader, said he is "open" to the censure idea provided the language is strong enough and a "reasonable number of Democrats" support it. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) has expressed similar thoughts.

    But Feinstein and Bennett, cautioning that the situation is fluid, declined to predict the outcome, and several Republicans made clear they oppose censure or have strong misgivings. Still other senators cautioned that a consensus on wording could prove difficult to achieve.

    Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he fears it would end up with "fuzzy euphemisms" and cautioned that the language may be "harder to nail down than Jell-O to a barn door." Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) complained that it does not attempt to get at the facts of the case and saw it as "a way for Democrats to get off the hook."

    With most Democrats already backing censure of some kind, Feinstein and Bennett are reaching out to Republicans in hopes of having a final version in hand before the trial is scheduled to end late next week. They have gone through different drafts -- 17 in all, said Senate Democratic whip Harry M. Reid (Nev.) -- and are circulating their most recent version through both parties.

    A key question is what role, if any, will be taken by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has expressed misgivings about censure -- but has taken no firm position. Lott has concerns about censure's constitutionality and "whether its a crass political exercise" that might wind up being repealed if Democrats regain control of the Senate, Lott spokesman John Czwartacki said yesterday.

    Another question arises from the procedural difficulties of bringing such a resolution before the Senate. Several senators, including Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), have indicated they might try to prevent the measure from coming to a vote.

    The idea of censuring the president without removing him from office has been hovering over the Senate since long before the trial started, floated originally by Lott, although Lott later shelved the idea in favor of pushing ahead with the trial. By December, many Republicans as well as Democrats were considering censure as a way to punish Clinton while leaving him in office.

    But the idea faded as it came to be seen by many Republicans as a pretext for truncating the trial, and as a way for Democrats to distance themselves from Clinton even as they vote to keep him in office.

    It was supplanted recently by a GOP proposal for a "findings of fact" that would spell out, as part of the official trial record, the specific offenses that Clinton had allegedly committed. These findings could be passed by majority vote before the Senate voted on the articles of impeachment, which require a two-thirds majority for passage.

    But Republicans said the findings would have to have substantial Democratic support to be credible, and Democrats made it clear they would not go along, calling it a constitutionally suspect maneuver to convict Clinton by 51 instead of 67 votes.

    Yesterday, the White House once again embraced the concept of censure, particularly in contrast to the "findings of fact" proposal. "We thought a censure after the impeachment trial was done was more appropriate," Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

    Meanwhile, a renewed push to conduct the Senate's final deliberations in the open came from key Republicans as well as Democrats, suggesting that it may succeed even though two previous efforts failed.

    The Senate's 131-year-old impeachment trial rules require closed-door deliberations and it takes a two-thirds vote to waive them. Two previous efforts to open Senate debate on trial motions were opposed by most Republicans and fell far short of that mark.

    Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said she believes there are already more than 60 votes for opening the final deliberations "and I think people are coming our way." But several other senators were skeptical whether Hutchison and her allies could get close to the 67 votes needed.

    "If we close our deliberations at this extraordinary moment in our nation's history, the public will be forever deprived of a full accounting of these proceedings, and some may question our willingness to be held accountable for our actions," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who supports Hutchison's proposal.

    But there is also strong opposition to the proposal, from senators who believe open debate would lead to grandstanding by senators and a prolonging of the trial. "Things are more collegial, there is more communication across the aisle when the cameras are not on," said Bennett, who wants to keep the debate closed.

    Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a leading proponent of openness in the trial, said he has asked Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to take the lead in pushing to open the deliberations, saying it would assure success. Daschle backs Harkin's effort, but Lott spokesman Czwartacki said Lott has "no plans" to introduce such a motion.

    Meanwhile, as the House team prepared for another Saturday session of the trial, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) told reporters he and his fellow "managers" were preparing to extract "the most relevant aspects" of the case from the videotapes and weave them together in about 2 1/2 hours of narrative presentation. Rogan will provide an overview of the case and address the perjury charge against the president, while Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) will focus on the obstruction of justice allegations aimed at Clinton.

    "For the first time, the Senate and the people of the United States of America are going to get a chance to meet Monica Lewinsky, the person, not Monica Lewinsky as she as been described by lawyers and 'spinmeisters,' " Rogan said.

    In Williamsburg, where he was attending the annual House GOP retreat, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (Ill.) said polls indicating his party had suffered at least short-term damage from impeachment would have no impact on House prosecution of the case.

    "If Moses had come down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and he had listened to polling, he would have gone back up the mountain, wouldn't he?" said Hyde, who received a standing ovation from his colleagues at dinner Thursday night. "This is a case of a popular president breaking the law and we don't think that's a good idea."

    After the managers' presentation, the White House will have three hours for counter-argument, after which the managers will have a final half-hour for rebuttal and summing-up by Reps. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

    Staff writers Peter Baker, Juliet Eilperin, Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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