Democrat proposes censure of Clinton House could condemn president formally, avoid impeachment

November 25, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said yesterday that he would introduce a resolution to censure President Clinton when the committee meets to vote on whether to send articles of impeachment to the full House.

With a Judiciary Committee vote scheduled for the week of Dec. 7, the proposal by Rep. William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts could give Republicans a way out of their morass. Opinion polls clearly show that the public opposes impeachment, and censure would allow Republicans to formally criticize Clinton while stopping short of bringing charges.

A censure resolution would probably fail in the committee, whose Republican members favor impeachment, but it might have a chance in the full House.

But so far, neither Republican leaders nor committee Republicans show any signs of searching for an exit.

Republican leaders have been counting votes in the House and say they are hopeful they could pass one article of impeachment -- accusing Clinton of perjury. But even staunch supporters of impeachment concede that the article would likely pass by just one or two votes, further diminishing any chance that the Senate would muster the two-thirds vote to remove the president from office. A narrow House vote for impeachment could deprive the process of legitimacy.

But should the political climate remain opposed to impeachment, advocates acknowledge that they could lose by 10 votes or more. Even that estimate could be optimistic. Some Republicans have said they would likely lose by a far wider margin, perhaps by 40 votes.

Already, a half-dozen Republicans have said that, based on the evidence seen so far, they oppose impeachment. They are Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, John Edward Porter of Illinois, Mark E. Souder of Indiana, Jack Quinn and Peter King of New York and Christopher Shays of Connecticut.

Quinn said yesterday that he was intrigued by Delahunt's proposal but wanted to see the details, which so far do not exist.

'A strong message'

"We need a resolution that sends a strong message that the president's conduct was inappropriate," Quinn said. "It has to be bipartisan, and I'm willing to explore any concepts."

Undaunted, committee Republicans have called a hearing for Tuesday to discuss the consequences of perjury for the judicial process, in another effort to tilt public opinion to their side. Witnesses will include federal judges, convicted perjurers and military personnel, who could attest to the corrosive effect on morale of having a commander in chief who has admitted misleading the nation about a sexual affair.

"The idea is to look at the serious consequences of perjury on the judicial system, on our system of laws, and provide committee members with a framework in which to consider these charges," a Republican committee aide said. "For the people at large, I would hope it would just answer the question, does perjury matter?"

Republican committee members, who hope to finish work by the second week of December, seem to be swimming against the tide as they resolutely pursue impeachment. Republican leaders and White House aides are exploring a possible endgame: Delahunt's motion would condemn Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his efforts to conceal it. But it would include no punishment, such as a fine, as some have suggested.

Even if it loses in the Judiciary Committee, the Delahunt proposal could be the basis for a censure resolution on the House floor, if outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls a special session of the House next month to resolve the Lewinsky matter.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has praised Delahunt as a Democrat with "his head screwed on straight." Delahunt, a former district attorney, has been reaching across party lines, conferring on impeachment with Republican committee members such as Reps. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Ed Pease of Indiana.

Delahunt was one of two committee Democrats who attended Monday's deposition of Daniel Gecker, an attorney for Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer who has accused Clinton of making an unwanted sexual advance toward her. It was Gecker's deposition, in part, that prompted Delahunt to act, said his chief of staff, Steven C. Schwardon.

The time to act

Sources in both parties say Gecker offered no new information to propel the impeachment inquiry forward. As a result, Schwardon said, Delahunt feels that with the evidence against Clinton now in, it was time to act.

"Everybody is standing around looking at each other's shoelaces, saying we will figure a way out of this," Schwardon said. "But it's like a ticket to the passive Olympics. It's as if Congress is knotted up in a legal maze that is too difficult to figure out, when in reality it isn't that complicated."

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