President seeks deal to get vote on censure He's for 'every effort' to avoid impeachment

December 15, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With just two days left before the House begins voting on articles of impeachment, President Clinton and his defenders are mounting an assertive, last-minute campaign to persuade undecided House Republicans that only censure could bring a quick end to the all-consuming, nearly year-long crisis.

In Jerusalem yesterday, Clinton said he was open to "every compromise" in lieu of impeachment when the House votes Thursday.

"I don't believe it's in the interest of the United States and the American people to go through the impeachment process and have a trial in the Senate," he said, responding to reporters' questions. "That's why I have offered to make every effort to make every compromise with Congress."

In the face of refusals from the GOP leadership to allow a vote on a censure, the White House is waging an 11th-hour campaign to rouse public opinion into pressuring the Republican leadership to relent.

Vice President Al Gore joined the battle yesterday, assailing Republican leaders for preventing any compromise agreement and threatening "to put the country through this long ordeal that would ensue."

"It is not in keeping with the wishes of the American people," Gore said. "It is not following the wisdom of the American people. And so I would hope that the leadership in the Congress would reconsider, allow this compromise approach that the American people want in a bipartisan way."

Clinton's defenders are warning both the public and the roughly two dozen wavering House Republicans of the damage to the nation that an impeachment trial in the Senate could cause -- including a possible blow to the economy -- and of the protracted, endless nature of any such proceeding.

Mideast trip called success

At the same time, White House officials also eagerly highlighted Clinton's successes in the Middle East yesterday, pointing out the surreal nature of the "split-screen presidency" in which Clinton is both hailed as a peacemaker by Israelis and Palestinians overseas and on the verge of impeachment at home.

The impeachment issue is being waged more gingerly, unlike most other high-priority Clinton lobbying efforts, many of which have involved frontal attacks, arm-twisting, deal making and the engagement of the administration's celebrated "war room" operation and mentality.

"We will bend ears, but we won't break arms," said Clinton adviser Paul Begala. "We have to be respectful of the position members of Congress are in."

More to the point, White House officials admit there is not a lot they can do at this late hour.

Begala acknowledged the administration may not succeed in getting the GOP leadership to change its mind and allow a censure vote, "but we still have to make the argument anyway."

"There are limits on what can be done," agreed Jim Kennedy of the White House counsel's office. "This is not the traditional legislative battle over a trade bill where we have leverage and can mount an all-out effort. This is a quieter effort, one focused more squarely on the Constitution and the law."

While engaged in the greatest fight of the Clinton presidency -- a battle for its very survival -- the White House is trying to make its case largely through back channels, given the volatile nature of the conflict.

The vice president said he was doing "anything and everything that is appropriate and effective" to help the president avoid impeachment, but was not calling lawmakers directly because, "The president doesn't think it's appropriate."

Clinton to keep distance

Clinton has said he believes he should keep a distance from direct lobbying efforts, forfeiting what some presidential allies believe is one of his most effective weapons -- his own power of persuasion.

But the president said he would talk with any lawmaker who requested time with him and is expected to meet with Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut -- who yesterday asked for a face-to-face meeting with the president -- upon his return from the Middle East.

The White House has dispatched business and labor leaders as well as African-American and women's activists to intervene with any of the undecided lawmakers with whom they have relationships.

In addition, Cabinet members such as Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman -- both former members of Congress -- have made calls to undecided House Republicans.

The White House legal team has also sent the president's 184-page defense to every House member and called each of the wavering moderates to let them know they're available to answer any questions or discuss the president's position.

"The effect of the conversations is to remind people, as they go into this momentous vote, that they have a duty, if only to their conscience, to read the president's defense," said Begala. "We think it's got a lot of power."

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