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President appears unable to turn tide Some suggest he meet moderates; others say he should hang tough


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, whose persuasive charm has helped him escape political peril in the past, suddenly finds himself with little power to say or do anything to turn the tide of impeachment in his favor.

As more and more undeclared Republicans line up in support of impeachment, some of those close to the president are hinting that Clinton, who returned home from the Middle East late last night, might attempt some grand gesture today to stop the momentum against him.

White House chief of staff John Podesta traveled to Capitol Hill yesterday for a strategy session with Democrats. One option reportedly under consideration was for Clinton to invite 10 or 12 key moderate Republicans to the White House.

He already has a scheduled meeting with one of them -- Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a former opponent of impeachment who now appears back on the fence.

In a last-ditch scenario floated by some lawmakers who favor censure, the president could avoid impeachment if he agreed to pay a hefty fine and admit that he lied to the American people and in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case.

Some Republicans have been suggesting for weeks that the only way Clinton can escape impeachment is for him to admit he lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern.

But even if Clinton agreed to such a statement, it is unclear that such an admission would be enough to win over the undecided House members.

"This is too important a matter to just walk away and say, 'It's over.' With something of this magnitude, you have to keep going," said Ann F. Lewis, the White House communications director.

But White House officials concede that the president faces a shrinking pool of undecided congressmen -- and dwindling options.

Outside advisers, lawmakers and political scientists said they could think of little, if anything, the man once heralded as the "Comeback Kid" could do at this late hour to spare himself from being impeached by the House.

"He's in a very tough spot as far as something he can do to turn this thing around," said Democratic strategist Jody Powell, the former press secretary to President Carter and an occasional Clinton White House adviser. "I can't think of anything he could do."

Given the impressive track record of the White House damage control operation -- as well as Clinton's Houdini-like talent for emerging victorious from dire situations -- it seems logical to assume that the administration is "cooking something up," said Terry Michael, a former Democratic aide and executive director of the Center for Politics and Journalism. "But I'm not sure there are any master chefs around there who could make a desired meal out of this one."

Some Democrats, such as former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, urged Clinton to make one last appeal to House members with a visit to Capitol Hill today.

"The president can make his case in person before the full House better than anyone," Davis said.

Similarly, Leon E. Panetta, the president's former chief of staff, said that while Clinton's position is getting "tougher by the hour," he could possibly stave off impeachment through "one-on-one lobbying with those members who are still undecided."

But political analysts were dubious that even the smooth-talking president, who is often at his best when he is under siege, could persuade Republicans to back down from impeachment, especially now that they appear close to having enough votes to push it through.

"I think it's too late," said Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government. "The process has already gotten past the point where the president's actions have any particular relevance -- short of a resignation. It looks like he'll be impeached."

Likewise, Alan I. Baron, the Washington lawyer who was chief Democratic counsel for last year's Senate campaign fund-raising hearings, does not believe individual negotiations with individual lawmakers will work for the president.

Clinton's only hope, Baron says, is for the undeclared members to approach the president as an organized bloc and tell him specifically what they need to hear from him in order to vote against impeachment. But Baron concedes, "If it's to say, 'I committed perjury,' that's probably not doable."

Clinton and his legal team have steadfastly denied he lied under oath or committed perjury.

Many believe the GOP's call for such an admission is merely an attempt to trap the president into admitting he committed a felony, a move that could increase the likelihood of his being indicted once he left office and also could force wavering lawmakers to feel they had to vote for impeachment.

Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut said he did not know how the House would respond if Clinton admitted to lying under oath.

"They are asking a lot, and it's not clear what will be offered in return," said Lieberman, who criticized the president's behavior as "immoral" in a September speech on the Senate floor. "The tTC president should follow his own instincts and his own conscience."

If Clinton backtracked from months of denials and finally admitted to lying, "he might ensure a unanimous vote on impeachment," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

Mann, in fact, believes further contrition and apologies from Clinton would be ill-advised since such attempts, such as Clinton's Rose Garden remarks of remorse Friday, have only made matters worse for him.

"Rather than contrition, a little firmness is called for," says Mann.

He believes that, although it is a gamble that ultimately may not sway any votes, Clinton should warn the House that, if it votes to impeach him, he would welcome a Senate trial in which to press his case. The public, after all, supports Clinton's argument that his offenses do not warrant removal from office.

"Let the Senate trial proceed," the president should tell the House, according to Mann.

He and others believe Clinton may be powerless at this critical moment because the votes of the moderate Republicans are now being driven by internal party politics more than anything else.

"Clearly, this has become a Republican Party matter because it's obviously being done in the face of public opposition, united Democratic opposition and an ambiguous and challengeable case," says Mann. "Few members are going to be comfortable caught on the other side.

"The real question now is whether they swim together or sink together."

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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