WASHINGTON -- President Clinton appeared almost prepared yesterday to lose a House vote on impeachment, as he rejected a call from senior Republicans to step down but ruled out acknowledging that he lied under oath, an admission sought by wavering lawmakers.
"I can't do that because I did not commit perjury," Clinton told reporters in Jerusalem, shortly after arriving in the Mideast for a three-day visit. "I could not admit to doing something that I am quite sure I did not do."
The president's remarks were described as a disappointment by moderate GOP lawmakers who said they were looking for a reason to reject impeachment when the House conducts what still looks to be a cliff-hanger vote Thursday.
"Those of us that are looking for a way to be able to get through this constitutional crisis really are looking to Bill Clinton to help us in this quest," Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, a Republican from California, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"I just don't know how the president can look us in the eye again and say, 'Look, I didn't lie. I didn't commit perjury,' " Bilbray said.
Also yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde joined two of the House's senior Republicans -- Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas -- in their call for the president to resign to spare the country the ordeal of a Senate trial.
"I think the president should step down," said Hyde, the Illinois Republican who presided over the just-concluded impeachment hearings. "I think he could really be heroic if he did that. He would be the savior of his party," he said, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Clinton's comments and general demeanor at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to reflect a belief that he could have little effect on the outcome of the impeachment vote in the GOP-controlled House. But he made it clear he would fight for his office in the Senate, which would hold a trial on any impeachment charges approved by the House.
"I have no intention of resigning," Clinton told reporters. "It's never crossed my mind."
Deeply split along party lines, the Judiciary Committee finished its work Saturday, after approving four articles of impeachment charging Clinton with perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of office.
No impeachment alternative
Republican leaders said late Saturday they will not allow an alternative to impeachment -- such as the Democrats' harshly worded censure that was rejected by Judiciary Committee Republicans Saturday -- to be voted upon by the House during Thursday's debate.
DeLay and Louisiana Rep. Robert L. Livingston, who will take over in January as speaker of the House, contend the Constitution prohibits the House from imposing any sanction against a president other than impeachment.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said yesterday he would use a procedural vote as a test of sentiment on whether a majority of members would prefer censure to impeachment.
"All the members, Democratic and Republican, are going to face a procedural vote on whether or not they want censure to come up as an alternative," Gephardt said. "So they're going to have to face this issue, whether the Republican leadership wants them to or not."
History books will record Clinton's misdeeds, which is itself a punishment, Gephardt said. "Some of the first words to describe his presidency are going to be about this matter -- and if we condemn him and censure him, [they will note] that he was censured by the House of Representatives of the United States," Gephardt said.
Several House GOP moderates said that Clinton's two recent statements on the scandal -- in a Rose Garden address Friday, and in response to reporters' questions in Jerusalem -- damaged his cause because he would not explicitly acknowledge he had lied to the country or under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
"I think the president hurt himself very clearly," Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, said on ABC's "This Week."
The president needs the votes of most of the two dozen wavering Republicans to offset the modest GOP majority and compensate for the likely loss of several Democratic votes.
But Clinton brushed off the idea of admitting he lied while giving testimony under oath to a grand jury convened by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and during a deposition conducted by attorneys for Paula Corbin Jones.
"Now, was the testimony in the deposition difficult and ambiguous and unhelpful? Yes, it was," Clinton said. "That's exactly what I said in the grand jury testimony myself." It was not, however, perjury, he said.
Clinton is not expected to make any further public statements on the matter in advance of Thursday's House impeachment vote, aides said. Nor is he going to personally telephone wavering members, Clinton said, explaining that he considers it inappropriate for him to do so.
Time running out
The president and his staff seemed to suggest that they believe it may be too late for him to head off what they consider a highly partisan political exercise.
"I think if we look back, this process has been partisan from the beginning, and it appears it's going to be partisan at the end," White House chief of staff John Podesta said. "I am afraid that's the course that they are embarking on as we go into the final vote here this week."
Even so, White House lobbying on the question has been formidable, Republicans say.
Armey called it "the most intense lobbying effort I've seen this White House mount for some time, and it is unseemly."
Clinton has "talked to several members this week," Podesta said. "But I think that he doesn't think that the right way to handle this at this point is to get on the phone, if you will, and begin to lobby members. And we are trying -- we are trying to bend ears, not break people's arms."
Pressure is equally intense from forces favoring impeachment -- both within the House and from outside groups.
"There is pressure being brought from both sides," said New York Rep. Peter T. King, one of the leading Republican advocates of censure. "Tom DeLay is a great whip, but he's not exactly Mother Teresa. There's going to be recriminations. This is the real world of politics."
At a convention in Annapolis over the weekend, the Maryland Republican Party unanimously passed a resolution calling on the state's four GOP House members to vote to impeach Clinton. Only Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, a relatively liberal Republican from a predominantly Democratic district, remains publicly undecided, although she is considered likely to vote against impeachment.
The three other Republicans -- Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Wayne T. Gilchrest -- say they will vote to impeach. The state's four Democrats -- Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn -- have announced they will vote against impeachment.
Senate trial anticipated
Many politicians are looking past impeachment to the Senate, where a Clinton trial could become a lengthy, tawdry spectacle focused on the explicit details of the president's sexual activities with Monica Lewinsky.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Virginia Democrat who opposes impeachment, said yesterday he half-expected a plea bargain to be arranged in the Senate before a trial got under way. It would have to involve Clinton's acceptance of a stiff financial penalty, he said.
Former White House counsel Lloyd N. Cutler, on CBS, noted that a motion to dismiss the charges would take a mere majority vote in the Senate, meaning the president's allies would need just six Republicans to join a unified Democratic front to render the trial unnecessary. Hyde acknowledged that the Senate has wide latitude to deal with the impeachment charges in almost any way wants.
But Clinton's conviction and removal from office would require a two-thirds Senate majority, which appears unlikely unless new developments trigger mass defections by Democrats.
Pub Date: 12/14/98