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GOP faction makes pitch for censure House moderates rethink impeachment prepare letter to Lott; 'We are not convinced; Bouyed by polls, Clinton strives to project leadership


WASHINGTON -- Just two days after their historic impeachment vote, key moderate House Republicans yesterday expressed misgivings about the ultimate remedy endorsed by the impeachment articles they approved -- the removal of President Clinton from office.

And in a show of regret, they prepared to formally implore the Senate to instead consider a sharp rebuke of the president that would spare the country from a divisive Senate trial.

Buoyed by soaring public approval, Clinton sought yesterday to prove that he can lead the country under the cloud of impeachment, even as the Senate moved toward a landmark trial to determine whether he should be removed from office.

Continued public support for his presidency, White House aides say, depends on Clinton's ability to project leadership in the face of a grievous threat to his tenure.

The developing White House strategy is to capitalize on the public's undiminished approval of Clinton's steward-ship despite his impeachment. To that end, the president plans to stay publicly engaged in voter-friendly issues such as Social Security, health care and housing for the poor.

Far from hunkering down in the Oval Office, Clinton traveled yesterday to a Washington soup kitchen and then to a service at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. And last night, he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, feted the White House press corps at a Winter Wonderland on the White House South Lawn.

Tomorrow morning, Clinton will journey to Baltimore to visit the Boys and Girls Club on East Fayette Street and announce grants to fight homelessness. The president had planned to announce the grants in his weekly radio address last Saturday. But White House aides decided that Clinton should travel out of Washington for his first major public event since the House impeached him on Saturday.

Yesterday, Clinton made scant mention of his looming Senate trial.

"I hope everyone in the country will take some time to think about other people and do something in the spirit of the season like this," he said at the soup kitchen when asked if he had a message for Congress.

White House aides have called on Vice President Al Gore to step forward as the administration's forceful voice on the impeachment issue.

"Saturday's vote in the U.S. House of Representatives was wrong -- wrong for our Constitution and wrong for America," Gore declared yesterday. "But this much should be clear: President Clinton and I will continue to focus all of our energies on the business of the American people."

Yesterday's most striking development was the letter from Reps. Sherry Boehlert and Benjamin Gilman of New York, Mike Castle of Delaware and Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, which they prepared to send to Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader. They released its text last night, and plan to send it today.

"We are not convinced, and do not want our votes interpreted to mean, that we view removal from office as the only reasonable conclusion of this case," they wrote, although the articles of impeachment for which they voted each concluded: "Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial and removal from office."

They argued in their letter that while it was "questionable" whether the House had authority to deal with censure, the Senate clearly "does have the authority and the precedents to consider a range of options. Those options should include a tough censure proposal, which would impose a fine and block any pardon."

The four voted Saturday against allowing consideration of a Democratic move to allow a House vote on censure.

Another House Republican who voted for impeachment, W. J. Tauzin of Louisiana, was consulting with colleagues yesterday about asking the Senate to avert a trial. His spokesman, Ken Johnson, said, "The feeling is the president paid a terrible price for his actions. The Clinton presidency has been indelibly stained by impeachment."

Even studied nonchalance could not distance Clinton from the ominous prospect of the second presidential impeachment trial in history. White House lawyers met to review any legal avenues available to head off such a spectacle, and Gore appealed to the Senate to put the Lewinsky scandal behind the nation at last.

"I do hope that the United States Senate will rise to this moment, as it so often does, to be the voice of reason, deliberation and healing that America needs," Gore said yesterday.

"I hope the Senate will, therefore, forge a fair, bipartisan compromise to end this matter promptly and to end it in a way that will respect the will and the wisdom of the American people."

But key senators warned yesterday that the White House should not expect to negotiate a settlement that would include a censure of the president. It increasingly appears that a Senate trial cannot be avoided.

Even a Democrat, the highly respected Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who is the most ardent defender of Senate prerogatives, declared that the White House should stay away from senators, who would serve as jurors in an impeachment trial. A conviction would require the votes of two-thirds of the Senate.

"One thing is clear: For the good of our nation, there must be no 'deal' involving the White House or any entity beyond the current membership in the U.S. Senate," Byrd said yesterday in a statement. "Whether there is a trial or whether there is some other solution, that decision must be made by senators."

And even those Democratic senators who are considered reliable defenders of the president sounded circumspect after the House's impeachment vote.

"There is a process, and the next step in the process will occur after Jan. 6, when the new Senate is seated," said a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, perhaps the most liberal Republican voice in the Senate, praised House Republicans for what he called a "discriminating" and "thoughtful" impeachment deliberation.

Chafee pointed to the House's rejection of two of the four articles of impeachment as a clear sign that serious thought had gone into the approval of the two other articles. The two articles that passed charge Clinton with lying to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"This is not just a partisan stampede," Chafee said of his House Republican colleagues. "These are thoughtful people. Let's get started, get sworn in, start hearing evidence. Then, if there is sentiment for censure, fine."

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed those sentiments: "Once they've sent over articles of impeachment, I think we have to proceed with the trial. But we're going to have to really, at one time or other, determine just whether or not you could get anywhere near 67 votes to convict the president on the impeachment charges."

"If you clearly can't do that," he said, "then it's apparent that we should not spend the next two to six months trying this matter. We ought to resolve it, and we ought to resolve it in the best possible way we can."

Under Senate rules, a simple majority could vote to adjourn the trial -- or never convene one. But most senators appear convinced that it is the Senate's duty to at least convene the first presidential impeachment trial in 130 years.

Chafee even suggested that cutting a deal now would only encourage the House to lower the threshold for any future impeachments, confident that the Senate would dispose of the matter with little serious consequence.

"You can see the sense and rationale, that if it's just casually passed in the House, with people saying, 'Oh, well, the Senate will take care of it,' you would encourage this activity, and we certainly don't want to do that," Chafee said. "We should take it seriously in the Senate."

As they prepare a legal defense, White House lawyers appear confident that they can retain the backing of the nation's voters. Indeed, a flurry of new public opinion polls indicates that support for Clinton has actually risen since the House passed two articles of impeachment on Saturday.

A New York Times/CBS News survey conducted Saturday night and Sunday found that 66 percent hope that the Senate censures or fines the president. Only 30 percent said the Senate should proceed with a trial.

The poll also showed Republicans with their worst popularity ratings in the 14 years that CBS News and the Times have asked about it. Nearly 60 percent expressed an unfavorable view of the Republicans; 36 percent had a favorable one.

The Times/CBS poll put Clinton's job approval rating at 73 percent, up 5 percentage points from a week before and tied with the all-time high he achieved just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll over the same period showed a 9 point increase, from 64 percent to 73 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Clinton with a job approval rating of 67 percent, up 3 points from a week earlier. Clinton's 73 percent approval rating in the CNN poll matched President Ronald Reagan's high in that poll.

Perhaps most encouraging to the White House was a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who believe that Clinton should resign. Last week, polls showed that up to 45 percent believed the president should step down if impeached.

But now that Clinton has been impeached, the CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll found that 69 percent oppose his resignation and just 30 percent favor it. The New York Times/CBS News poll found similar results: Two-thirds of the public want Clinton to stay; 31 percent favor his resignation.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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