With eye on Congress, Clinton invites censure Hard-liners unmoved

allies see Catch-22 if perjury is admitted

December 12, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- With his impeachment by the House appearing imminent, President Clinton made an urgent personal appeal to Congress yesterday, saying he would welcome a formal censure for his "errors of word and deed."

Though he did not mention impeachment directly, Clinton was clearly trying to head off the possibility that the House would stain him as only the second American president to be impeached.

Minutes after his somber appearance in the Rose Garden, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve an article of impeachment accusing Clinton of perjury before a federal grand jury. Later in the day and last night, the committee approved two additional articles of impeachment, charging him with perjury in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case and with obstruction of justice.

The president knew he could not head off those votes in the committee. His remarks were aimed instead at a handful of publicly undecided Republicans and Democrats who will hold in their hands the fate of his administration when the full House votes next week. Clinton's speech came amid frantic efforts by his aides and allies to sway those House members.

"What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds," Clinton said, his voice restrained, his tone grave. "I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.

"I have been condemned by my accusers with harsh words. And while it's hard to hear yourself called deceitful and manipulative, I remember Ben Franklin's admonition that our critics are our friends, for they do show us our faults."

Clinton had been under intense pressure to address the nation and demonstrate publicly that he has come to recognize the magnitude of his misdeeds in concealing his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Many House members who have not yet decided how they will vote on impeachment said they would accept nothing short of a confession of illegal acts -- even if, for Clinton, that meant risking criminal prosecution once he leaves office.

"I am looking for an honorable reason not to vote for the president's impeachment," declared retiring Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, the only House Democrat who has called for Clinton's resignation. "If the president drops his 'I didn't lie' defense and admits to deliberately providing false information under oath and credibly promises never to deceive the nation again -- if the president does all three of those, I would vote for censure."

It is far from clear, however, that Republican leaders will ever permit a resolution of censure to come to a vote in the full House.

Even before the speech, some of the president's allies said he needed to put himself at personal risk to rescue his presidency. Rep. David E. Skaggs of Colorado, a retiring Democrat who opposes impeachment, urged Clinton to put aside his "selfish and indulgent concern about criminal liability later on."

"His immediate problem is the problem he should be solving, and the way he solves it is coming clean and admitting he lied under oath," Skaggs said. "That is not the same as admitting perjury."

The White House had drafted a statement of contrition in which Clinton would have said: "I understand today how reasonable people could read from my testimony in the Jones case and conclude I crossed the line. I tried not to, but that is no excuse."

But the president evidently decided against going that far toward acknowledging that he made some false statements under oath. Ultimately, his statement fell well short of a confession of illegality. Aside from his explicit acceptance of a congressional censure, Clinton did not go much further than his past statements of contrition, though he may have sounded somewhat more humble.

Many Republicans were unmoved, and some even proclaimed that Clinton's statement actually proved the need to impeach.

"The president refuses to acknowledge that he broke the law," fumed Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House and the leader of the impeachment drive.

"He refuses to accept responsibility for his illegal acts. This last-ditch effort to influence undecided members of Congress is an insult to their intelligence and the intelligence of all Americans."

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of only a half-dozen House Republicans who publicly oppose impeachment, said: "I was disappointed. It was what I hoped he wouldn't do. It makes it harder for members of Congress to do what I think is the right thing to do, and he makes me think he still doesn't get it."

Even Democrats said they feared that Clinton's comments would not stave off an impeachment that they say has begun to assume the air of inevitability.

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