House numbers adding up to impeachment Debate shifts toward Clinton's resignation to avoid Senate trial

December 18, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They can argue their case. They can attack the partisan motives of their opponents. But President Clinton and his allies cannot quarrel with the arithmetic.

Yesterday, to the continuing drumbeat of pro-impeachment announcements by the moderate Republicans it had pinned its hopes on, a bitterly disappointed White House faced the stark reality that, short of a miracle, William Jefferson Clinton would this week become the first president in more than a century to be impeached.

The airstrikes against Iraq may have bought the president a day's reprieve. But they did little to change any minds on Clinton's fate.

In fact, with suspicion lingering among some Republicans that Clinton began airstrikes as a way of delaying impeachment, the party lines and ill will stiffened yesterday.

Republicans appeared more determined than ever to push through a House vote on impeachment by week's end, and outraged Democrats appeared equally determined to resist it.

The surprising disclosure by Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston last night that he had had extramarital affairs is expected to heighten partisan tensions when the House takes up impeachment today -- but not to change any votes in Clinton's favor.

With the Republicans' margin of victory on the impeachment vote now reaching 20 to 30 by some counts -- and with the party's leadership adamantly opposed to a House vote on any alternative such as censure -- even Clinton and his defenders acknowledged that there appeared to be no way out.

"Without a censure vote, it's hopeless," conceded a Clinton adviser. "That realism now has set in."

In fact, the adviser said, the new focus is to seek a bipartisan censure agreement, "when" -- not "if" -- the impeachment matter "gets to the Senate" for a trial on whether Clinton should be convicted and removed from office.

Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said that there has been "some discussion" between administration officials and members of the Senate, though Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott insisted yesterday that there will be a trial and no "deal-making" if the House hands the matter to the Senate as expected.

Clinton was said to be resigned to the House impeachment vote, now likely to take place tomorrow, and trying to focus on the Iraq situation. Yesterday, he called world leaders to defend the airstrikes and updated congressional leaders on the military operation.

Asked by reporters what he could do to stop the Republican drive to oust him, Clinton offered a tepid reply.

"The Constitution has a procedure for that, and we will follow it," he said flatly.

Lockhart said the administration halted any aggressive lobbying the president's behalf on Wednesday, given that the airstrikes against Iraq had begun.

"If we, over the last 24 hours, had been aggressively reaching out on impeachment, we certainly would have been criticized for trying to take advantage of this pause and delay in the impeachment vote," Lockhart said.

But a limited lobbying effort resumed yesterday, with Vice President Al Gore making calls to lawmakers and Hillary Rodham Clinton consulting with historians and constitutional experts.

A meeting with Clinton requested by Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a still wavering Republican, that had been canceled Wednesday because of the Iraq crisis was rescheduled for today.

But as more Republican fence-sitters jumped to the impeachment side, there were few votes to be had and not enough to change the expected outcome.

The parade of moderate Republicans coming out in favor of impeachment continued yesterday, with announcements from Rep. Rick A. Lazio of New York, who had traveled to the Middle East with Clinton just days ago, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, Rep. Steve Horn of California and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico. Among the few Republicans who have not declared how they will vote is Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County.

By yesterday, impeachment had become such a foregone conclusion that, as the two parties sparred on Capitol Hill about whether to conduct such an important vote while the country was engaged in a military operation, the matter shifted to a new, even higher-stakes debate:

Should Clinton resign to spare the country the trauma and distraction of a Senate trial?

Recent public opinion surveys have revealed a marked rise in the number of Americans who believe that Clinton should resign if he is impeached rather than take his chances through a Senate trial.

But those close to the president said emphatically yesterday that he is not considering resignation.

"Under no circumstances will President Clinton ever resign -- there is not even the slightest chance," said Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel.

Davis said he expected Clinton to come under increasing pressure from Republicans to step down because, at election time, "the best way they can get off the hook" for impeaching a popular president "is to shift the burden to President Clinton to resign."

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