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Momentum For Censure Growing

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Helen Dewar and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 23, 1998; Page A01

    Momentum for punishment short of removing President Clinton appears to have gathered strength in the Senate, interviews with senators, their aides and others indicated yesterday. But hopes for censure could easily fall apart through missteps by the White House or disagreements over the critical details of a resolution.

    Asked if there was an "emerging consensus" for censure, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview yesterday, "I think there is one, at least the potential for it, but there is a lot of uncertainty about when it would occur and what it would say."

    Daschle said that he and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have had "a number of discussions" over how to proceed. "We are discussing it with our caucuses and attempting to construct a schedule that will allow an expeditious consideration of the articles of impeachment early next year."

    There are numerous conversations underway about how to proceed, not only within the two party caucuses but across party lines as well. Out of those discussions has come a general consensus that a Senate trial will almost certainly begin before any action would be taken on censure.

    "People are just beginning to formulate what they think," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.). "I believe there is a consensus that a trial must start, out of respect for constitutional precedent and respect for the House. From that point on, I think all the options are open."

    Preliminary soundings among the 45 Democratic senators indicate that there are no certain votes to remove Clinton from office and strong, if not unanimous, support for some alternative punishment, according to Democratic sources. "Almost every Democratic senator would likely vote to dismiss," said a Senate Democratic leader, who asked not to be identified.

    The Republican situation is more murky, given the desires of many grass-roots conservatives to see Clinton removed. No prospective jurors have said they would vote to convict, although there are a number of conservatives who are believed to favor that outcome. Some senators have said they want the trial to go to its conclusion and oppose suspending it to consider censure.

    But the fact that a number of GOP senators -- somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen -- have talked generally about censure suggests that a growing proportion of the 55 are looking for ways to avoid a long Senate trial that could further damage the party's image with the public.

    However, Republicans are wary of any outcome that the White House could interpret as a victory. "The idea of casting a vote that would cause rejoicing and the popping of champagne corks in this White House is not attractive to me," one Republican senator said yesterday.

    The same senator said any censure resolution would have to be "sufficiently damning to the president" that it attracts the support of a strong majority of the Republicans in the Senate.

    Once a trial starts, and if it quickly becomes clear there are not 67 votes to convict the president, discussions about alternative punishment are likely to intensify.

    Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said that based on her conversations with colleagues, "I don't think people think it's in the best interest of the country to prolong it." She added, "Once we have established the constitutional procedures, if there is a genuine sincerity to work this out in a way that obliterates party lines and partisanship, I believe there is a way to do this."

    White House officials feared the impeachment vote might generate significant pressure for the president to resign. While some Republicans have continued to call on him to do so, there appears to be no significant movement in that direction. But whether the Senate can get beyond the partisanship that marked the proceedings in the House won't be clear until the process begins early next year.

    The Senate is a more collegial and less partisan body than the House, and many senators of both parties have said they expect it to proceed in a far more decorous fashion than the House did in considering impeachment. Most key players have said that any solution will have to have bipartisan backing.

    But this is no guarantee of smooth sailing.

    An impeachment trial is more than just uncharted territory for the Senate; its rules run counter to the normal behavioral pattern of the institution. Senators cannot debate in public in an impeachment trial, let alone filibuster.

    Virtually anything can be done by majority vote instead of the unanimous consent or 60-vote majority needed when the Senate is in legislative session. Leaders are reduced to the ranks of simple jurors, although they continue to wield power in the cloakrooms.

    Probably more important is the fact that the Senate doesn't handle sex scandals very well. Even now, it is still smarting from its handling of womanizing charges against former senator John Tower (R-Tex.) when he was nominated as secretary of defense, as well as allegations of sexual misconduct during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and during an ethics probe of then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.).

    Democrats have been pushing for an early compromise to avert the need for a trial, hoping to capitalize on the pro-censure opinion among the public and Clinton's strong approval ratings.

    But in a television interview last week, Lott firmly ruled out any pretrial dealmaking, although he noted that procedural votes could be taken "along the way," which colleagues interpreted to mean that the Senate could turn to alternatives at some point during the trial.

    As of now, Democrats concede that the early formalities of a trial, including summoning Clinton to respond to the charges against him, are likely to start before maneuvering over a censure comes to a head. This initial period, which could last a month or two, would provide time to work on a censure deal. But Democrats fear it could lead to drift and a polarizing of positions, encouraging Republican hard-liners to hold out for time enough to force Clinton to reconsider his refusal to resign.

    "Censure is appealing in the abstract but once you poke beneath the surface it's tough to put anything together that isn't going to create disagreements," said an aide to a senior Senate Republican. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that drafting a censure resolution "could take longer than a trial."

    The second problem -- which some say may be the biggest -- is whether a censure would have to include some additional punishment negotiated with the White House, such as a confession of perjury by Clinton, a financial penalty or other sanction (those mentioned by senators include a fine, no pension, no funds for a presidential library, ban on future holding of office). A negotiated deal would be necessary to avoid tripping over the constitutional ban on bills of attainder.

    Clinton's resistance could blow up a compromise, but many Republicans who are open to a censure, including such moderates as Sen. John H. Chafee (R.I.) are insisting that the censure would have to include a "penalty other than a scolding," as Chafee has put it.

    Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose influence on such matters is enormous, told the White House not to try to broker a deal and insisted that any compromise had to be worked out among senators and no others.

    Byrd's statement could inhibit how directly some influential outsiders, such as former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), can attempt to bring about a solution.

    According to one Republican source, Lott was angered by Dole's New York Times Op-Ed article last week outlining a plan for censure. Another GOP source said Clinton called Dole late last week and talked to him at some length about the situation, but that Dole indicated the issue was in the hands of Congress.

    A major unknown is how far the Senate would have to get into a trial before it could move officially for censure, which would require recess, suspension or adjournment of the trial, under Senate rules.

    Byrd is understood to be open to two ideas: suspending the trial to consider censure or a kind of dual-track process under which the trial would proceed as senators try to work out an alternative punishment.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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