GOP conservatives push impeachment process Mood to compromise wanes as Democrats embrace censure option

September 15, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congressional conservatives -- angered by suggestions that President Clinton could escape his troubles with a censure -- dug in their heels yesterday and demanded that the impeachment process move forward.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, said conservatives had approached him to express their chagrin that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch had suggested that Congress consider a punishment short of impeachment. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had made similar overtures over the weekend.

But many Republicans now seem in no mood to compromise, in part because the censure option has been so warmly embraced by Democrats. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota raised the option again yesterday, saying Congress should "consider other means to address the president's conduct, holding him accountable but sparing the nation months of instability and policy paralysis."

In response, Lott seemed to take censure off the table, telling reporters it would not be an acceptable option.

Nickles agreed.

"I don't think much of it," the Oklahoman said of censure. "The charges made in Judge Starr's report are very serious, and they need to be addressed."

With the public clamoring for Congress to get beyond the White House sex scandal, House leaders are moving rapidly. House Judiciary Committee members could meet as early as today to discuss when to release thousands of pages of appendixes and other evidence that accompanied independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 445-page report.

The first batch of documents could be released toward the end of this week, after Judiciary Committee members decide what information to keep secret. Starr had asked Congress to prevent much of the material from becoming public in order to protect the names of people who could be embarrassed or impugned unfairly by grand jury testimony.

Lawmakers from both parties say those names will have to be deleted, and they increasingly agree that additional, salacious sexual details should be kept from the public. Judiciary Committee aides, pointing to footnotes in the Starr report, say they believe further expositions on Clinton's sexual encounters with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky are in the still-secret documents.

"Without characterizing what's in those documents, I would not be in favor of releasing anything more explicit then what was already released if we can avoid it," said Republican Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Judiciary Committee member. "I was chagrined about releasing much of that material already."

The Judiciary Committee is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to formally request permission to begin impeachment proceedings. The House is likely to vote on that request before it recesses in early October for the fall campaign season, possibly as the last vote of the session.

Judiciary Committee members expect to return after the elections to begin an investigation into the 11 allegations that Starr said rise to the level of impeachable offenses. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, who last week said there would be no impeachment hearings this year, now holds out that possibility. "I want to move with all deliberate speed forward," he said yesterday.

But it is not clear how fast Congress can move. Hyde suggested that he was not sure Congress has seen the last of Starr's evidence. The independent counsel could release new charges pertaining to his original investigations of the Whitewater land deal, the White House's alleged misuse of FBI files, and the firing of the White House travel office.

Conservatives are not as anxious as many Democrats to wrap up the process quickly.

"We don't want to rush it," said Nickles. He said he doesn't want the public to be angry with Congress for moving too quickly.

Fumed Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a liberal Democrat: "I think the House Judiciary Committee is going to drag this on for six months."

All in all, there seems little chance that Clinton might quickly put the Lewinsky scandal behind him. That is, in large part, a reflection of regional divisions within Congress and the nation at large.

Members of Congress spent the weekend getting an earful from their constituents on the Starr report and the president's future. As would be expected, Republicans from conservative districts said voters overwhelmingly support resignation or impeachment. Rep. Ed Bryant, a Tennessee Republican and Judiciary Committee member, said calls, letters, and conversations ran 90 percent against Clinton.

That sentiment has pushed an increasing number of Republicans to call for Clinton to resign. Yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich of Ohio, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2000, joined the ranks, declaring that the people have lost faith in their president.

"The president should do us a favor and go," Kasich said.

Democrats painted a different picture, saying voters are angry at the president's behavior but pleased with his performance and opposed to impeachment.

"There's a common thread from what I'm hearing from younger families, including my own," said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and Judiciary Committee member. "Clearly they want there to be consequences for Bill Clinton's actions."

But, he said, virtually no one wants him removed from office.

Clinton's fate may rest with swing voters in regions that have supported Republicans and Democrats alike. Sen. Susan M. Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, reflected the ambivalence of her constituents, whose comments are running against the president 6 to 1.

"People are very upset. They are deeply offended," she said. "But they aren't sure what should be done."

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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