Senate Democrats Stress Unity
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A04
Alarmed that Senate Democrats might begin abandoning President Clinton, their leaders moved yesterday to head off defections that they feared could cost the party dearly in the November midterm elections.
At what was described as an unusually somber weekly caucus luncheon, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) made a strong appeal to colleagues to stick to issues and "keep your powder dry" on the subject of Clinton and his personal behavior, as one colleague later described the message.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reiterated her strong earlier criticism of Clinton for having misled the country about engaging in an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, colleagues said. But neither she nor any other Democrat dissented during the meeting from Daschle's unity appeal, they reported.
On the House side, both parties are bracing for a procedural fight over how to handle the impending report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. House Republicans have begun developing rules for reviewing the report, including how to keep it secret. House Judiciary Committee Democrats support a secrecy provision but are protesting that the GOP has excluded them from the process.
The discussion at the Senate Democrats' closed-door luncheon, their first since the Senate returned from its August recess, was prompted by concern that one or more Democrats might break openly with Clinton and set off a chain reaction threatening many other Democrats in this fall's elections.
While many have criticized Clinton's behavior, no Democratic senator has yet called for reprimand, censure, impeachment or resignation of the president.
"There was no overt mention of censure or resignation, and I was pleasantly surprised at that and at [the fact that] there was more unanimity than I anticipated," said Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), one of several Democrats who heartily endorsed Daschle's sentiments during the luncheon.
Earlier, in an interview, Harkin had said he thought the Democratic Party is "facing as great a crisis as it's faced since 1972," when the party divided over the presidential nomination of George McGovern and suffered an electoral wipeout. "I'm concerned that some Democrats may want to cut and run on this and try to pile it on the president. . . . I'm very fearful that if that happens, that as we go into the elections this fall, the only issue will be the investigation" by Starr, he added.
Harkin said he and other supporters of the president were alarmed at reports circulating on Capitol Hill that Republicans were seeking an alliance with some Democrats in calling for a resolution to censure the president over the Lewinsky matter. He said he and his allies decided to use the luncheon to "try to put pressure on people to prevent them" from breaking with the president so close to the election.
Democrats were reportedly especially concerned about Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has kept his own counsel about Clinton but is believed by colleagues to be deeply offended by the president's actions. Some said they feared he was considering a speech urging censure. Lieberman attended the luncheon but said nothing during it or afterward. An aide said Lieberman is "not interested in resignation or impeachment" but declined to comment on censure. Lieberman is still "mulling over" what to do, the aide said.
Feinstein, who earlier said her faith in the president's credibility had been "shattered" by Clinton's admission that he had not told the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky, also left the lunch without comment.
Harkin said he was concerned that, if the investigation of Clinton dominates the fall campaigns, divided Democrats could see additional losses in the House and, more ominously, enough defeats in the Senate to give the 55-member Republican majority the 60 votes necessary to break Democratic-led filibusters. In Harkin's view, this would increase the likelihood of Republican control of the Senate for years to come.
He also said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), co-chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is concerned that party divisions and a sidelining of Clinton, the party's best fund-raiser, would seriously complicate funding of this fall's campaigns.
While party loyalists appeared relieved at the tone of the luncheon, even they seemed to feel a need to draw a distinction between support for the president and support for their shared policy agenda.
Asked at a news conference after the lunch if Senate Democrats were now "solidly behind the president," Daschle said: "I think the Democratic caucus is solidly behind the agenda we are talking about and that the president supports just as strongly as we do."
Daschle appeared to distance himself from the open talk about impeachment last week from House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), saying any speculation about impeachment is "premature." Senate Democrats were united in feeling that "we need to wait until the facts are in" before speculating about Clinton's future, he added.
The few others who chose to talk as they left the luncheon also stressed policy over scandal. They said they intended to concentrate all their attention during the six weeks before Congress's scheduled adjournment on issues such as managed health care, more funding for schools and teachers, campaign finance reform and a minimum wage increase -- all of which Clinton also supports.
Harkin summarized the luncheon message from Daschle and others in this way: "Let's stay focused, stay on message, [which] is that we are fighting for the issues that will make people's lives better. What they're fighting for is more lurid details about the president's sex life."
Clinton's troubles were also on the agenda for the Republicans' weekly luncheon, where the idea of censure continued to decline in appeal. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who originally floated the idea, shot it down Monday and it drew little if any support when it was brought up again at the GOP lunch, sources said.
In the House, the focus was on dealing with Starr's report, which could arrive this month. Several Republicans emphasized that no final decisions had been made about the rules the Judiciary Committee would follow in reviewing the independent counsel's report. The rules, now being crafted by the Rules Committee, have to be approved in a resolution by the full House before taking effect.
Democrats wanted Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) to oversee the entire process, including designing the rules for any possible impeachment inquiry, and are now threatening a fight because the Rules Committee has taken charge of writing the resolution.
Meanwhile, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Hyde questioning why Democrats had received only 22 percent of the investigative staff's resources.
"The current number of minority staff is not only unfair in relation to the resources granted to the majority, but is simply inadequate for the purpose of conducting an independent review of the contents of any report sent by the independent counsel and appropriately advising the minority members of the committee," Conyers wrote, detailing the division of resources in probes from Watergate to Whitewater.
House Republicans responded that Hyde boosted the minority's share of staff once he took over the panel and that Conyers gave Republicans just 13 percent of staff resources when he chaired the Government Operations Committee.
According to several informed sources, under the new rules the Judiciary Committee could delegate subpoena power solely to Hyde and committee staff would be able to depose witnesses without lawmakers present. Republicans are also exploring whether the Judiciary Committee could rule immediately on questions of privilege, such as attorney-client protections or executive privilege, rather than waiting for the courts to decide, sources added.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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