Senators Try to Find Way Out for Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 1998; Page A8
Few lawmakers have less in common than the onetime Vietnam War protester from Massachusetts and the strait-laced former Mormon bishop from Utah. But Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) share a penchant for legislative activism that has led them to try to head off an agonizing ordeal over the impeachment of President Clinton.
Their prescriptions differ but overlap, reflecting their contrasting backgrounds as well as their appetites for high-profile causes, earnest -- some would say sanctimonious -- styles and willingness to work across party lines to get results.
Hatch has repeatedly held out the possibility that Clinton could escape impeachment if he drops the legalisms and "admits to really grievous wrongdoing, recognizes he has a problem and agrees to get help for it," as he put it in an interview late last week.
Kerry has pushed for a week to rally support for a deal under which Clinton would testify before the House Judiciary Committee in exchange for a "fast and fair" as well as narrowly structured inquiry that could conclude with impeachment, censure or some other form of punishment.
Even though they have not drawn much support from colleagues and have taken some verbal hits from members of their own parties, their efforts as honest brokers have focused attention on the possibilities for accommodation in what is otherwise a starkly partisan and polarized arena of combat. Moreover, some on Capitol Hill believe that Hatch's nudging may have been a factor in moving Clinton toward greater contrition over the last couple of weeks and that Kerry's concept of a negotiated process may come into play at some later point.
"Having credible spokesmen from each party raising the possibility of actions by Congress short of going down to the formal impeachment road is useful and constructive, even though politically premature," said Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.
For Kerry, a defining moment came when he landed last weekend at Boston's Logan Airport and was besieged by constituents, including a distraught airline employee who pleaded with him to "save us from this mess," as a Kerry aide recounted.
"I've had constituents who've come up to me, actually teary-eyed, and said, 'We've got to find a way to stop this, we've got to find a way to pull us back from the brink,' " Kerry said in explaining why -- after a day of soul-searching about what to do and how to do it -- he aired his proposal on a Sunday talk show. "I think people have an expectation that we will lead and not just sit back as everything falls apart around us."
As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hatch has the stature to speak about impeachment, even though neither he nor the Senate has any formal role to play unless the House votes to impeach the president. Even more, his involvement in the debate over Clinton's fate seems to flow out of his long personal history of working closely with Democrats such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and trying to minister to them when they get in trouble, as he did when Kennedy was wrestling with personal and family problems in the early 1990s.
"I've spent a lifetime helping people who have difficulties . . . as an attorney, a Mormon bishop" and later as a senator, Hatch said. "My heart goes out to anyone in difficulty. . . . I believe that everybody can be redeemed. That's how dumb I am."
But Hatch does not believe that Clinton has done enough so far to redeem himself and his presidency and argues that, as of now, the House should go ahead with its impeachment inquiry. "The bottom line is the best interests of the country, not the best interests of President Clinton," he said.
Many of the two senators' colleagues in both parties are skeptical, at best, about what Hatch and Kerry are trying to do.
Republicans and some Democrats attribute Kerry's role to his possible presidential ambitions for 2000, a suggestion that draws contemptuous denials from Kerry and some of his close associates. "It's just John Kerry trying to get attention," said a GOP senator who did not want to be quoted by name. "He's trying to do the right thing, but it misses," said a Democratic colleague who is more interested in trying to negotiate a straightforward deal for censure or some other punishment short of impeachment.
While Democrats are both encouraged and bemused by Hatch's overture, the reaction of Republicans ranges from cool to icy cold. "Orrin has confused forgiveness with the need for people to pay for the consequences of their actions," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of several conservatives who have been complaining privately about Hatch's overtures to Clinton. But Santorum denied reports that senators threatened to try to depose him as Judiciary chairman if he persists.
"It's true some of them tried to intimidate me and it didn't work," said Hatch, adding that several of the critics later apologized. He has, he added, been in worse trouble.
An even more common observation is that Kerry's and Hatch's ideas are nonstarters, at least for now. Their chances of prevailing "are somewhere between slim and none," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
A conservative serving his fourth term in the Senate, Hatch, 64, was the first to try his hand at resolving the crisis by suggesting in early August, two weeks before Clinton's grand jury testimony and terse speech about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, that the president could survive through candor and contrition. Clinton, he said, would "have a reasonable chance of getting through this" if he would "pour his heart out to the American people."
Hatch was angry and disappointed when Clinton's testimony and speech fell far short of his earlier hopes, referring at one point to Clinton as a "jerk" and to the speech as "pathetic."
By mid-September, Hatch was back on the reconciliation track, saying he thought the president could still survive in office if he acknowledged he had "done some really bad things . . . really screwed up here." But, he added last week, "I'm not sure he has it in him" to go that far.
At 54, now in his third term, Kerry first came to prominence as a former Navy officer who helped found Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the early 1970s. He contends that the war still helps define why he is in politics. "For me, being in public life means taking on tough issues," and few things are tougher than a presidential impeachment, he said. "I don't want to have a holier-than-thou attitude or anything, but it's just a sense that this is dangerous, dangerous stuff."
His work with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to help pave the way for the normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations illustrated both Kerry's continuing identification with the war and his frequent work with Republicans on issues of mutual interest. Kerry and McCain, a Navy aviator who was shot down over Hanoi and spent 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, are like living bookends from the war years.
Unlike Hatch, who looks to influence the outcome by persuading Clinton to change course, Kerry wants to create a carefully crafted process -- with concessions from both sides -- that might avoid what he regards as "long-term scars that will last into history."
As he sees it, the White House and congressional leaders would agree to a "truncated process" focusing on "a narrow set of factual areas and some issues of law that need to be determined." The president would testify only if House Republicans agreed to such a process, Kerry said. While the process could lead to censure or some other punishment short of impeachment, the ultimate sanction would not have to be agreed upon in advance, he said.
But Republicans see Kerry's proposal as a means of short-circuiting impeachment, and Democrats are apprehensive about any deal that would expose Clinton personally to "those bomb-throwers in the House," as one Democratic senator put it.
Like Hatch, Kerry has not lost hope. He contends that both the White House and House GOP leaders have indicated interest in his idea, although neither camp has embraced it and Republicans appear to be particularly unimpressed.
As Kerry hopped on a subway car en route to the Capitol from his Senate office the other day, a man at the rear of the car gave him a thumbs-up sign and yelled, "Keep it up." That, as much as anything else, explains why Hatch and Kerry keep fighting the odds.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company