Clinton asked to postpone State of Union

Senators say giving the address during trial is inappropriate

Speech scheduled Jan. 19

Plan for quick action is picking up support among lawmakers

January 04, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senators of both parties called on President Clinton yesterday to delay or cancel his State of the Union address so that he does not appear before Congress while his impeachment trial is under way.

Even with momentum apparently building in the Senate for some kind of expedited proceeding, lawmakers agreed that there is little likelihood that impeachment action will be completed by Jan. 19, when Clinton is scheduled to make his annual address in the Capitol.

"I think it would be unseemly and distracting for the president to be giving a State of the Union address to Congress while he was under trial in the Senate," said Sen. Slade Gorton, a Washington Republican.

Gorton said the president "should seriously consider postponing it for a week or two.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who worked with Gorton to develop a proposal for avoiding a full-scale trial that is picking up support, said part of their plan includes a request to the White House to delay Clinton's address.

"This is another reason why we have a very short window here to try to work out a procedure for this trial," Lieberman said. "If we don't, we are going to descend, I fear, to the kind of partisan rancor that characterized the House proceeding, and we're going to get to a point where the president's going to have to make the State of the Union in the midst of this trial, and that's not going to be good for the country."

Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, who believes the Senate should conduct a full trial and conclude with a vote on whether to turn Clinton out of office, suggested that the president revert to a long-abandoned practice and submit his State of the Union message in writing.

"I agree that the president should not be speaking to Congress when he is under this cloud, under the trial," Gramm said.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, who advocates that, instead of a trial, Clinton be censured for offenses allegedly committed in connection with efforts to hide his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, also called for rescheduling the Jan. 19 appearance.

"It's inappropriate to report on the State of the Union as long as the president is under impeachment, because the State of the Union from the perspective of his administration is unclear," said Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat.

The senators made their comments on the NBC program "Meet the Press."

The White House did not immediately respond to the senators' suggestion, but the president has signaled that he intends to make his State of the Union address on schedule.

Clinton keeps up pace

While the senators have been wrestling during the holiday season with how to handle his trial, Clinton has been conspicuously going about the business of putting together a package of budget and legislative initiatives to be featured in his televised address from the House chamber.

Over the weekend, Clinton offered a preview of his plan for the largest increase in Pentagon spending since the mid-1980s. Yesterday, details were leaked of a Clinton proposal to provide tax credits to help with long-term care of the elderly.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who, like Gramm, would prefer a full trial and vote on Clinton's guilt or innocence, seemed to endorse that business-as-usual approach.

"This whole thing has been awkward from the beginning," McConnell said on the ABC program, "This Week."

"Just because it happens to present an awkward moment for us, I think, is not determinative," McConnell said. "He ought to come on up and give his State of the Union message. If we're not finished, we're not finished. And we'll finish when we get through."

One difficulty at this point in postponing the State of the Union address would be knowing just how long to put it off.

With the formal opening Wednesday of the new term of Congress, senators will meet as a group for the first time since the House impeached Clinton Dec. 19. Their comments in individual interviews suggest that a wide disparity of views still remains over how to respond to the House action.

"None of us have been together since this whole discussion began, and I don't know how that's going to come out," McConnell said.

Senate Republicans are expected to meet Thursday to decide whether to go along with the Gorton-Lieberman plan that could limit the trial to four days.

Difficult consensus

The biggest challenge faces Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is trying to shape a bipartisan consensus on impeachment procedure without losing too many of his fellow Republicans.

Lott is eager to dispense quickly with the impeachment matter, which promises little chance that Clinton might be ousted but could hurt Republican senators running for re-election in 2000 if it drags on so long that nothing else gets done during this term of Congress.

Several conservative Republican senators said yesterday, however, that they would resist Lott's attempt to win broad agreement on the Gorton-Lieberman plan.

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