WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter T. King of New York became the first Republican to propose that the House censure President Clinton, making a last-ditch effort yesterday to drum up Republican support for a punishment that falls short of impeachment.
But King's claim that at least 20 other moderate Republicans had helped draft his resolution could not be verified. Even the half-dozen Republicans who have declared their opposition to impeachment say they have not signed on to King's proposal.
The House seems likely to approve this month one article of impeachment on perjury, a vote that would make Clinton the second president to face trial in the Senate.
"There isn't any [Republican censure] resolution, as far as I can tell," said Rep. John Edward Porter, an Illinois Republican who said he opposes impeachment based upon the evidence so far.
Porter did say, however, that he was considering co-signing a sharply worded censure resolution drafted by Rep. Paul McHale, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is retiring.
As jockeying intensified in the House, the Judiciary Committee began wrapping up its inquiry and narrowing its focus to the core issue of whether the president lied under oath and should be removed from office for doing so. The chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, informed committee Republicans that 1996 campaign finance improprieties would not be considered when the panel deliberates, and then votes, on articles of impeachment next week.
Pummeled by complaints that the committee's excursion into campaign fund-raising was an act of desperation, Hyde tried to justify the aborted examination of secret memos drafted by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, a former Justice Department prosecutor. Both memos recommended that Attorney General Janet Reno seek an independent counsel to review Clinton's 1996 fund-raising activities.
"Having received reliable information from Justice Department sources that the memorandum may be of value to the committee's impeachment investigators, the committee would have been derelict in its duty had it failed to examine the document," Hyde said.
That ended a brief foray into Clinton's fund-raising practices that had produced angry assertions from Democrats that the committee was out of control. Just two days after approving subpoenas for Freeh and LaBella, committee leaders decided against questioning either one of them.
"Obviously, this little 48-hour lurch into campaign finance was not well thought out by the Republicans," scoffed James Jordan, a spokesman for the committee Democrats. "This whole thing is getting embarrassing."
Committee Republicans also canceled a planned deposition from Bruce R. Lindsey, a deputy White House counsel and Clinton confidant, and Robert Bennett, the president's lawyer in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case. That decision signaled that Republicans will not pursue allegations that Clinton groped Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer.
And Thomas Mooney, the committee's Republican general counsel, informed White House lawyers that their planned defense of the president on Tuesday would be limited in scope. They will not be able to call witnesses and will have to submit to questioning by committee members, something Clinton's lawyers had hoped to avoid.
That set off another round of complaints that White House lawyers were being treated unfairly. The committee's lead Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, denounced the investigation as "an impeachment proceeding in search of an impeachable offense."
Yet for all their apparent missteps, committee Republicans still seem to have the support of their party's leadership and of nearly all the House GOP rank and file.
In his first public comments on the matter, Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana declined to limit the scope of the committee's work, though he said he favored wrapping up the impeachment inquiry this year.
"I don't have any idea what we're going to do until the Judiciary Committee reports," Livingston said. "We don't know when the Judiciary Committee is going to complete its work. We don't know what's going to be in their report. It's my hope that they would finish this year.
"But I'm not going to make any decisions about procedure until we see the report and have a chance to digest it and understand exactly what Henry Hyde and the Judiciary Committee are recommending."
Republicans say they know that at least one article of impeachment -- and possibly as many as four -- will be approved by the committee next week, strictly along party lines. The House will then be called into special session the week of Dec. 14 for the second presidential impeachment vote in history.
Yet beneath their expressions of support, some Republicans are nervous that a House vote to impeach the president could prove politically disastrous. Polls show that the public is mostly opposed to impeachment. Even so, the Senate would have to hold a trial to consider whatever articles of impeachment the House approves, ensuring that the spectacle would spill into next year.
"Now that we're coming out of the usual post-election doldrums, members are starting to focus," said Rep. Bill Paxon, a New York Republican. "More than ever, there are more fence-sitters. Members are not comfortable with the way these things are playing out."
The King alternative
King sought yesterday to offer nervous moderates and the president an alternative: a sharply worded censure, which would include a fine and a statement of contrition by Clinton. To avoid constitutional rules that bar Congress from imposing fines, payment would have to be voluntary.
But King's profession of broad support among House Republicans for such a motion was not evident. None of the five other Republicans who have declared their opposition to impeachment said they had been approached by King.
One of them, Porter, said he did discuss censure with McHale, the Democrat who has drafted his own rebuke of Clinton. If Porter signed on to the McHale draft, it would become the first bipartisan impeachment alternative.
That prospect clearly worries the most ardent impeachment proponents. House Republican Whip Tom DeLay is trying to prevent any censure vote, thus forcing House members to choose between impeaching the president and letting him off with no formal punishment. DeLay hopes that this dilemma would force Republicans, and some Democrats, to vote for impeachment and inoculate themselves against complaints that they allowed Clinton to escape any punishment for the Monica Lewinsky matter.
"Censure is not going to happen," said a Republican leadership aide. "People should just put it out of their minds."
But some Democrats who might lean toward impeachment indicated yesterday that DeLay's tactic would only inflame the partisan anger that has raged since the impeachment inquiry began. Rep. Bob Clement of Tennessee, a conservative Democrat, said the inquiry has actually eased his greatest concerns by dismissing allegations of presidential impropriety in the firing of the White House travel office, the use of FBI personnel files, the Whitewater land deal and campaign fund-raising abuses.
If Republicans deny Democrats the chance to censure the president, Clement said, this would be interpreted as further evidence of a vendetta against Clinton.
"Simply doing that to try to force that many more folks to support impeachment -- I don't think that will work," he said. "I think that will backfire on them. Republicans have bungled this badly."
Pub Date: 12/04/98