WASHINGTON -- With the end of the impeachment saga in sight, White House aides took pains yesterday to reassure senators that President Clinton would not stage an "unseemly" victory celebration after his expected acquittal by the Senate.
The prospects for such a celebration have put a chill in Senate efforts to end the trial, with Republicans scrambling for a graceful conclusion that would not appear to exonerate the president of any wrongdoing.
Senators, especially Republicans, have been haunted by the image of Clinton and House Democrats gathered on the White House lawn in December for an exuberant show of solidarity just hours after the House had voted to impeach the president.
The prospect of a repeat performance has been the subject of "very, very deep concern" among Republicans, acknowledged Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont Republican.
Until now, the White House has danced around the notion of whether a victory show would be staged after the conclusion of the Senate trial, which is expected next week. But yesterday, Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, addressed the matter, declaring the "post-impeachment era" at the White House "a gloat-free zone."
Ann Lewis, the White House communications director, echoed Lockhart's remark: "Nothing is going to happen that would be seen as unseemly."
The Senate's majority Republicans have been trying for weeks to preclude any celebration that could ensue once Clinton avoids conviction by two-thirds of the Senate, as is expected. The Republicans have opted to keep the trial going in hopes of wearing down any White House jubilation.
They first rejected a Democratic bid to dismiss the charges. Then the Republican senators agreed to depose three key witnesses, partly to legitimize the House decision to impeach and to point up the gravity of the charges against Clinton.
And in recent days, Senate Republicans have been vigorously debating whether to approve a "findings of fact" that would detail what wrongdoing they believe Clinton committed -- in effect, finding him guilty, even though they lack the 67 votes needed to remove him from office.
Supporters of such a "finding," which would require a simple majority to pass, say it would prevent the president from being able to claim he had beaten the charges.
The president's allies have been mystified by what they call a Republican "fixation" on a possible White House victory celebration, especially given public opinion polls that show a majority of Americans want the trial to end.
"They may be missing the point here," said Jody Powell, who was the spokesman for President Jimmy Carter and is an informal Clinton adviser. "You've got two-thirds to three-quarters of the country wanting to celebrate, and the longer you put off the party, the angrier people are going to get."
But some Senate Democrats have been no less emphatic than Republicans in denouncing Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And some have sent signals to the White House that they would not take part in any victory celebration.
"I don't think you'll find senators being a part of any pep rally," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.
Jeffords, who is among the most moderate Republican senators, signaled that he and others would condemn anything resembling the post-impeachment rally by the White House.
"I have confidence he's not so foolish as to resurrect the cheering squad," Jeffords said of the president.
The White House appears to have gotten the message. Lewis said yesterday, "We appreciate the guidance and advice we've received from many people."
But presidential aides refused to apologize for December's display, and they denied that it was even a "pep rally." Lockhart tried to put the event in perspective, saying that just before the Democratic gathering at the White House, the Republican-led House had voted virtually along party lines to impeach a president for only the second time in history.
House Republican leaders were already using the impeachment as a hammer to demand Clinton's resignation, he said. House Democrats said they wanted to show the nation that the president still enjoyed his party's support despite the impeachment. And Clinton felt it necessary to publicly assure Americans that he would remain in office "until the last hour of the last day" of his term.
"We thought it was important, and I think House Democrats thought it was important, to show that this had been a partisan process and that Democrats were not going to stand by while Republicans tried to . . . force the president out," Lockhart said. "It just wasn't going to happen."
But Lockhart took a decidedly less combative tone than he has in recent days, sensing perhaps that the impeachment trial could soon be concluded if Republicans and Democrats can avoid partisan strife. He acknowledged yesterday that concern about the president's reaction to the upcoming Senate vote was "a legitimate question."
Once Clinton is acquitted, Lockhart ventured, the White House will certainly feel a great sense of relief.
"But I don't think that there is anybody here who thinks anything out of this process constitutes a victory," he added. "This has been a process that has not been good for anyone who has been involved in it, and that includes the White House."
Pub Date: 2/04/99