By Amy Goldstein
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said yesterday that it would be fruitless for Congress to censure President Clinton if there is too little evidence to impeach him, as prominent Republicans continued to quarrel over how to respond once the independent counsel finishes investigating the president's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
"I don't think a censure resolution would be worth a tinker's damn," Specter said. "I don't think the Congress is in the business of censuring the president. That's not its job."
His comments on "Fox News Sunday" were a direct rebuff to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who suggested on Friday that a censure might be the perfect method for Congress to register its disapproval of Clinton's interactions with Lewinsky, if there is evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton's part but it is insufficient to warrant impeachment.
Lott also suggested that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should quickly wrap up his investigation of Clinton, a position that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) disagreed with on Saturday.
The quarrel within the party's elite illustrates the awkward position in which Republicans find themselves as Starr pursues his aggressive probe into whether Clinton had an affair with the former White House intern and aide, then encouraged her to lie about it.
The dispute left the White House, meanwhile, in the position of praising the Senate majority leader. Lott "is reflecting both public opinion and the public interest," White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday.
The intraparty dispute popped into public view Friday, when Lott said that Starr should accelerate his work. "He has had enough time, and it's time to show his cards," Lott said in an interview that was broadcast Saturday 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," Lott said. "Or if he doesn't, close it out."
Lott also broached the possibility that, as a "lesser option" than impeachment proceedings, Congress could pursue a censure resolution a move that experts said would have no specific constitutional basis or modern precedent to deliver a nonbinding but powerful political statement.
His suggestion drew swift criticism from Gingrich, who said at a breakfast in Georgia on Saturday that Starr ought to proceed "at the pace that justice dictates, not at the pace that public relations dictates."
In his comments yesterday, Specter reinforced Gingrich's theme, saying that Starr "has to be given more time to finish his investigation." He said that Lott's impatience was "a gentle nudge" to Starr and "a good thing."
But Specter expressed more opposition to the possibility of censuring Clinton, saying that such a move "would be regarded as a highly political, untoward matter."
Meanwhile, Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, took a position slightly closer to Lott's.
On ABC's "This Week," Thompson said that even though a censure resolution would have no effect in removing a president from office, "an expression like that from the United States Congress, I would hope, would mean something."
On a related issue, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) said that the House Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, is preparing to add more lawyers to its staff. But McCollum and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the committee's ranking Democrat, both said on CNN's "Late Edition" that the hirings were to fill long-standing vacancies. They were not intended to beef up the staff for possible impeachment proceedings, they said.
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