Fate in Congress' hands, Clinton focuses on job President pledges work to save Social Security, U.S. economy, education

October 09, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Congress added yesterday a new historic element to the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton -- potential impeachment -- the president said he remains focused on his job with his fate now out of his hands.

"I have surrendered this. This is beyond my control," Clinton told reporters soon after the House voted to begin an open-ended impeachment inquiry into his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

At an afternoon meeting to discuss the federal budget, Clinton sat in the White House Cabinet Room, surrounded by his economic team, appearing calm and resigned as he made brief remarks about the events unfolding on Capitol Hill.

"I hope that we can now move forward with this process in a way that is fair, that is constitutional and is timely," he said, seated at a table with his hands folded before him. "The American people have been through a lot on this, and I think that everyone deserves that.

"Beyond that," the president added, "I have nothing to say. It is not in my hands. It is in the hands of Congress and the people of this country; ultimately, in the hands of God. There is nothing I can do."

He vowed to keep his focus instead on passing a budget that saves Social Security, keeps the U.S. economy strong in the midst of the global financial crisis, protects the environment and funds educational needs.

"I have to work on what I can do," Clinton said. "What I can do is to do my job for the American people. I trust the American people. They almost always get it right, and have for 220 years. And I'm working in a way that I hope will restore their trust in me, by working for the things that our country needs."

With the climate inside the White House as dreary as it was outside, Clinton left it to aides to point to the silver lining of only 31 House Democrats voting for the GOP-backed impeachment proposal. The largely party-line vote fueled White House denunciations of the entire impeachment enterprise as a partisan effort to embarrass and damage the president.

"If you look back over the last month, what we see is at the outset we were promised a process that was serious, fair, nonpartisan," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. "And I think we have fallen short on all three fronts -- from the putting out of the report and the documents, to a party-line vote in [the House] Judiciary [Committee], to listening to a debate today that's, frankly, infected with politics and partisanship on the floor. We have fallen short."

Clinton declined to say whether he would testify voluntarily before the House Judiciary Committee or whether he would challenge Lewinsky's version of events surrounding their affair.

But Lockhart said the White House "will pledge to cooperate, to work closely" with Congress.

The spokesman said Clinton had not paid attention to yesterday's televised House debate. "I don't believe he's watched any of it, unless he's watched it in passing, walking through a hallway," Lockhart said. "He's surely interested in the outcome, but he's got a job to do and that's what he's focused on."

Yesterday morning, as members began their debate on the House floor, Clinton, flanked by a group of House and Senate Democrats, spoke in the Roosevelt Room of the White House about health care for the elderly and the situation in Kosovo. The usually gregarious president mingled little with the lawmakers.

Later in the day, he spoke by phone to French President Jacques Chirac about Kosovo and said he was to meet today with newly elected German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But with much at stake in the midterm elections, Clinton plans to attend a handful of fund-raisers for Democratic candidates in the next three weeks -- although not as many as he might have if there were no cloud of scandal above him.

The president has perhaps a keener interest than ever in helping Democrats win. For one thing, the elections will likely be seen as a reflection of the public's feelings about the impeachment inquiry.

Beyond that, Clinton's fate could rest in the hands of the next Congress, because it is unlikely that impeachment proceedings would be wrapped up before the start of the next session in January.

Should the House pass articles of impeachment, the Senate of the next Congress would be the jury that decides whether to remove Clinton from office. A two-thirds majority would be required for a conviction. At this point, Republicans -- with only 55 of the 67 votes needed -- would fall far short if a vote on Clinton's removal were cast strictly along party lines.

On Monday, Clinton is to attend an event for Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who is trying to unseat Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato. Later in the week, Clinton is scheduled to make trips to Florida, Chicago and St. Louis on behalf of Democrats.

In some cases, the appearances could be awkward because the Democratic candidates have made a point of condemning Clinton's personal misdeeds, though they oppose impeachment.

Schumer had harsh words for the president yesterday, although he ultimately voted against the Republican-backed impeachment resolution.

"It's clear the president lied when he testified before the grand jury -- not to cover a crime, but to cover embarrassing personal behavior," Schumer said during the House debate. "While it is true that in most instances an ordinary person would not be punished for lying about an extramarital affair, the president has to be held to a higher standard and must be held accountable.

"That said," Schumer added, "the punishment for lying about an improper sexual relationship should fit the crime. Censure or rebuke is the appropriate punishment; impeachment is not."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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