By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
Approved on a 259 to 157 vote, the nonbinding House resolution stopped short of imposing new limits on the use of executive privilege, as some GOP leaders have urged. But in an embarrassment for the White House, 36 Democrats joined Republicans in voting for a resolution that repeatedly compared Clinton's executive privilege claim to that of Richard M. Nixon during Watergate, an analogy that galls the president and his aides.
"This represents the first crack in the Democratic stonewall strategy," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who sponsored the resolution. "These Democrats agree with us that the president has misused the power of executive privilege, and that the American people have a right to know the truth."
Clinton invoked executive privilege in March to prevent independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr from asking certain questions of senior aides Bruce R. Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal about their White House conversations concerning the Lewinsky matter. Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson rejected the claim this month, ruling that Starr's need for evidence outweighed the president's interest in preserving confidential communications. Clinton is fighting to reverse that decision.
All of the skirmishing over his claim, however, has occurred behind closed doors. Citing a court seal imposed by Johnson, neither Clinton nor his aides even admit publicly that he has invoked the privilege, much less lost in court.
The White House brushed off yesterday's House vote. "The president has and will continue to abide by his constitutional obligations," spokesman James Kennedy said in a terse statement. The White House would not address the defections of three dozen Democrats.
Several House Democrats said the vote hinged on a separation of powers question, rather than a partisan one. "In this system of checks and balances, from time to time we do tell the executive branch what it should be doing," said Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), who voted for the resolution. "Most presidents tend to be very protective of their privilege, and very often the Congress indicates that it's excessive protection."
Rep. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), however, gave a slightly more blunt answer on the politics of executive privilege.
"It's a hard thing to explain back home because when they're called to testify, they have to," Baesler said.
At the federal courthouse, Starr's deputies brought a surprise new witness before the grand jury investigating whether Clinton lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and obstructed justice by encouraging her to lie.
Walter Kaye, a businessman who has given more than $450,000 to Democrats since 1992 and who helped Lewinsky obtain the White House internship in 1995 that allowed her to meet Clinton, spent the morning testifying about his involvement. Kaye also played a role in the since-dismissed Paula Jones lawsuit that set in motion the Lewinsky case; he suggested to Clinton's advisers that they invoke clauses in his personal insurance policies to cover the costs of his defense, a move that paid $1.5 million in legal bills before insurers cut off coverage last year.
Kaye and his attorney, Richard Holiman, declined to comment as they left the courthouse yesterday.
Prosecutors also brought back presidential aide Kris Engskov, who testified briefly once before in February. Engskov serves as Clinton's shadow, trailing him everywhere he goes to handle logistical matters such as making sure he gets revised copies of his speeches and keeping track of his minute-by-minute schedule.
Engskov has told colleagues he did not know Lewinsky and apparently was questioned about how the White House operates. He left the courthouse yesterday after just an hour, but offered only a riddle when asked why his visit was so brief. "You've got to see 'Deep Impact,' " he said of the new comet-threatens-Earth movie, an answer the smiling young aide repeated almost word-for-word just before leaving the building with his lawyer, Richard Ripley.
Staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
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