Formal inquiry likely in House Some in Congress backing off talk of Clinton impeachment

Public behind president

Lesser punishment, such as censure, is being considered

September 14, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress indicated yesterday that they have no choice but to begin exploring whether Kenneth W. Starr's charges are serious enough to warrant President Clinton's removal from office.

But with new polls showing strong public opposition to removing Clinton from office, Republican leaders began sending signals that they were open to an alternative way of punishing the president short of impeachment.

That does not mean the House would forego a formal inquiry into Starr's charges.

Starr's scathing report "must be looked at to see if those charges have any basis in fact," said Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters, a fierce presidential defender and member of the House Judiciary Committee, even as she vowed, "This president will not be railroaded."

House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said yesterday that a House investigation is not likely to be confined to Clinton's sex scandal. On the NBC news program "Meet the Press," DeLay seemed to raise the bar for Clinton, mentioning questions over Democratic campaign contributions from Asia, alleged efforts by the Chinese to influence the 1996 presidential election, and allegations that the Democrats attempted to sway the recent Teamsters election.

"All of these things have to come into play," he said, "and it may take longer than we want."

House vote

With Congress scheduled to adjourn in less than a month, a House vote on whether to launch a formal impeachment inquiry is probably the most that could be accomplished before the November elections. Further action could have to wait until next year -- though Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said the panel might stay in Washington through the fall to begin its investigation.

Even as Clinton's strongest critics tried to turn up the heat on the White House, other Republicans appeared to be searching for a way to defuse the crisis.

The extremely personal nature of the offenses alleged by Starr -- all purportedly committed to cover up an illicit affair with a young White House intern -- seem to be prompting increased consideration of some lesser penalty for Clinton than impeachment.

A growing wariness has begun creeping into Republican ranks about how far they can take their case against a president who remains resilient in public opinion.

Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, seemed to plead yesterday with Clinton and his advisers to help put the Lewinsky scandal to an end.

"If they'll quit playing this legal game, and start being what he is, a basically warm, winning person who the American people have liked from the beginning, if he'll do that, and just acknowledge, 'Yeah, I've done some really bad things, I really screwed up here,' my gosh, I think the president could get through this," Hatch said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Deeply divided

The Sunday morning hand-wringing over the Monica Lewinsky scandal revealed a political world deeply divided over how to handle Starr's 445-page report outlining 11 allegations of presidential misdeeds that the independent counsel said could be worthy of impeachment. A two-thirds vote in the Senate would be needed to remove the president from office, meaning that at least a few Democrats would have to go along with a virtually united Republican membership.

But with partisan lines growing deeper, politicians are beginning to wonder how Congress will exact a punishment against Clinton without the public behind it. Former White House aide George Stephanopoulos suggested yesterday something of a plea bargain: Clinton stays in office in exchange for an admission of perjury, a congressional censure and possibly a fine.

"I think the president will continue to serve," predicted Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "I think there are many other ways beyond impeachment that the Congress can express its dissatisfaction, its unhappiness with the president's conduct."

'The middle option'

Added Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the second-ranking House Democrat: "I think in the days and months ahead you will find people talking about the middle option, that of a public rebuke for his personal behavior."

A censure would not be insignificant to a president so concerned with his place in history. Andrew Jackson is remembered as the only president ever to be censured by Congress, even though the 1834 vote was later expunged by the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hinted at a sort of plea bargain, suggesting that the president drop his legal defense and "come to the Congress and say, 'How can this be resolved?' "

The impetus for an alternative short of impeachment is being driven by the American people. Opinion polls found the president's high approval ratings virtually unchanged since Friday, when the House publicly released Starr's report. Clinton's job approval ratings ranged from 59 percent to 67 percent, depending on the poll.

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