WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by their constituents' sympathetic response to President Clinton's televised grand jury testimony, Democrats began shopping around a new proposal yesterday to punish the president without impeaching him.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that would initiate impeachment hearings, dismissed such talk as premature, saying he would like to see a formal impeachment inquiry convened shortly after the November elections.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, has suggested to both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott a compromise: Clinton would testify before the Judiciary Committee about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, then accept a punishment short of impeachment, such as a censure and a fine.
"Any time the president comes forward and comes clean in a formal setting, it would probably be a positive development," Lott said.
But Hyde said his committee would continue its movement toward impeachment hearings, saying any decision on short-circuiting that process would have to come from House Republican leaders.
"There's an old saying: That's above my pay grade," Hyde said of any negotiated settlement. "It's very premature to talk about that."
The president could voluntarily appear before the committee, Hyde said, but only after an impeachment inquiry is under way.
Despite the efforts to craft a compromise that might avert an impeachment inquiry, some lawmakers warned that the president remains in no position to negotiate his way out of his sex scandal.
"I'd be worried about the quality of mercy that abounds in these houses at this time," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who has been among Clinton's sharpest Democratic critics. "I would say it is strained."
Republican leaders want the full House to vote in the first week of October on whether to convene hearings.
Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said, "There's a strong likelihood that the House will send this to the Senate" for a formal impeachment trial.
Amid partisan rancor, the Judiciary Committee will meet privately tomorrow to review the final batch of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's documents that Congress plans to release.
The final round, gleaned from at least a dozen boxes of evidence that remain secret, will include the grand jury testimony of the president's secretary, Betty Currie; his close friend Vernon Jordan; Linda R. Tripp, who taped her talks with Lewinsky; and numerous White House aides and Secret Service agents who were compelled to testify over the president's objections.
Nearly 3,200 pages of evidence and Clinton's videotaped testimony already have been released.
Under a rule approved by the full House, the remaining documents must be released by Monday but could come out as early as Friday. Next week, the committee is likely to release the president's Jan. 17 videotaped deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, in which he denied under oath having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
Far from nervous, Democrats now feel that the remaining evidence is likely to undermine the independent counsel's most damaging charges against the president: obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of power.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, said yesterday that it was now clear that Starr's core 445-page report, released this month, contained the most damaging evidence he could muster.
"The independent counsel has spent huge amounts of time, huge amounts of money, with a very large staff, to produce this report," Lofgren said. "And I assume this report is all that he has to say."
Republicans said yesterday that they still see no way to avoid an impeachment inquiry, even if the only well-documented charge against the president is perjury.
"Will the House proceed with an inquiry if it's proven that the president walked into a court of law, raised his right hand, pledged to tell the truth and the whole truth, then lied?" asked Rep. James E. Rogan, a California Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "The House would have no alternative."
Yet even as they dig in their heels, Republicans are showing some nervousness about an impeachment investigation that could center on whether Clinton lied about specific sexual acts conducted in a mutual relationship.
Rogan said he still believes Starr might send the committee evidence of wrongdoing on the Whitewater land deal that sparked the original investigation and on other matters such as the alleged misuse of FBI files and the firing of White House travel office employees. None of these matters was discussed in the 445-page report issued by Starr this month.