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Trent Lott/Post
Senate Maj. Leader Trent Lott (By Ray Lustig/The Post)

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Lott Urges Quick End to Starr's Investigation

By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 7, 1998; Page A01

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr yesterday to quickly wrap up his investigation and suggested that Congress could consider censuring President Clinton for his conduct if there is not enough evidence to impeach him.

In remarks underscoring the unease among Republicans with the Monica S. Lewinsky matter, Lott defended Starr against what he deemed "totally uncalled for" attacks from the White House but also urged the prosecutor to disclose whatever proof he has of any crimes.

"He has had enough time, and it's time to show his cards," Lott said in an interview recorded yesterday for broadcast today on CNN's "Evans and Novak." "If he's got something, go forward with it. . . . He needs to wrap it up, show us what he's got, indict, convict people. Or if he doesn't, close it out."

With Clinton's approval ratings still sky high even as the investigation lumbers on, Republicans have been quarreling among themselves over how to respond. Congressional leaders largely have taken a cautious tack, trying not to appear to pile on, while dissident activists and potential presidential candidates have argued for a more confrontational approach condemning the president for what they consider to be his moral failings.

Polls have shown that, based on what they know so far, many Americans are not willing to have Clinton thrown out of office, leaving many GOP lawmakers with little stomach for impeachment proceedings. Lott's comments offered a middle ground if no more damning evidence emerges.

He suggested Congress could approve a resolution of censure as a "lesser option," a move that experts said has no specific constitutional basis or modern historical precedent. In the Capitol, censure typically is used as a means of internal discipline for senators and representatives, but Congress has no power to impose any punishment on the president other than impeachment.

A nonbinding resolution, however, could offer a powerful political statement that would allow Congress to address the issue and denounce Clinton's actions without flying in the face of public opinion by trying to oust a president supported by two-thirds of voters.

As Lott explained it, "The House could say, 'Well, it's not serious enough for impeachment, but this is clearly conduct that is on the margin, and we don't approve of [it],' and the House Judiciary Committee would report out a censure resolution and the House would vote on it." Asked if his chamber would concur, Lott said, "The Senate would act on it too, probably, yes."

The only time the Senate formally censured a president was in 1834, when it berated Andrew Jackson. Senators were angry that Jackson was refusing to turn over documents related to a dispute over the central bank -- a forerunner of today's battles over executive privilege. "They were just so mad and so frustrated they didn't know what to do," said Senate historian Richard Baker. Three years later, as Jackson was leaving office, allies recaptured the Senate and expunged the censure.

A House GOP leadership official said he knew of no discussion about taking such a course with Clinton, although he said he believed it would be the subject of inquiry in the months ahead. The senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee saw the idea as a sign of Republican retreat. "They're getting smarter, but not a whole lot smarter," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) said through a spokesman.

The White House seized on Lott's assessment that Starr must conclude soon. "Senator Lott is acknowledging what the American people realized a while ago -- that it's time to wrap this up, that it's been a four-year, $40 million investigation with no end in sight," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Lott, though, was careful to stress that he was not excusing any of Clinton's alleged misbehavior. "All of it's very serious," Lott said. "Even just if, you know, a sexual relationship did exist, that does demean the office. . . . But if it goes beyond that, if it does involve perjury or obstruction of justice, then certainly he should consider resigning."

On related fronts, Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, has been chastised by a federal judge for his frequent public statements about the case, a source who learned of the proceedings said yesterday. During a closed-door hearing Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson said she was trying to expedite proceedings and voiced concerns about Ginsburg's inconsistent statements, complaining they were not serving either the government or his client, the source said.

The hearing was conducted all day to discuss Ginsburg's attempt to force Starr to honor an immunity agreement Ginsburg contends he reached with prosecutors last month. Starr's office has argued an acceptable agreement was never finalized, and Johnson has not yet ruled on the issue.

But Johnson's criticism appeared to produce a dramatic change of behavior in the once media-friendly Ginsburg. The lawyer who lunched with Mike Wallace, watched basketball games with Wolf Blitzer and appeared on five talk shows on a single Sunday morning suddenly has become outright hostile with journalists. As he arrived at Dulles Airport to return to California yesterday, an angry Ginsburg swatted a television camera trained on him, jabbed his finger and barked at a small band of photographers. "I want some space, [expletive]!" he snapped. "Get back!"

Before leaving town, Ginsburg had a lunch meeting with Clinton's lawyer, David E. Kendall, at the Cosmos Club. Until yesterday, Ginsburg has steadfastly denied having any substantive contacts with the Clinton legal team, insisting they were not working as a team. Neither he nor Kendall returned telephone messages yesterday.

While not as antagonistic as Ginsburg, Clinton also brusquely avoided answering questions about the Lewinsky investigation yesterday, once again finding his chosen message of the day overshadowed. In this case, he appeared on a sunny morning in the Rose Garden to boast about new low unemployment statistics, but after finishing his statement ignored reporters, turned on his heel and walked right into a U.S. flag whipping in the wind.

In a separate matter, Johnson has denied a motion by The Washington Post and other news organizations seeking to make public any sealed documents and court hearings on Clinton's attempts to shield aides through executive privilege, sources close to the matter said yesterday.

Johnson rejected the move Feb. 27 but sealed her decision and barred the news media lawyers from even telling their clients about the ruling. In her decision, Johnson said the motion was not ripe to rule on, meaning that no papers had been filed or proceedings scheduled to consider the issue. That means that, as of that date at least, Clinton had not formally invoked executive privilege, contrary to some reports.

Staff writer Toni Locy contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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