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Top Democrats rip Clinton's defense strategy

White House plans an anti-impeachment campaign

WASHINGTON (September 14) -- Two top Democratic leaders in Congress had tough words Monday for President Bill Clinton, saying he should curb hair-splitting over legal technicalities in favor of straight talk about the Lewinsky sex-and-perjury scandal.

In statements, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt took Clinton to task over how he has handled the aftermath of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"I certainly agree with those who have grown impatient with hair-splitting over legal technicalities," Daschle said. "There is a basic understanding of the standard of truthfulness that the president failed to meet."

Also in this story:

"The president and his advisers must accept that continued legal jousting serves no constructive purpose," Daschle said. "It simply stands in the way of what we need to do: move forward and let common sense guide us in doing what is best for the country.

"I question what purpose is served by additional exposure to the salacious details contained in the Starr report," Daschle added. "We must find a way to proceed and avoid further bombardment of the airwaves and Internet with such material."

Gephardt said Clinton "had a wholly inappropriate sexual relationship with a young White House intern and failed to be truthful about it. We must now consider the implications of his actions, seek the truth and render a judgment.

"One of the most important virtues of the American character is our ability to approach the complexities that life presents us with common sense and decency," Gephardt said. "The considered judgment of the American people is not going to rise or fall on the fine distinctions of a legal argument but on straight talk and the truth. It is time for the president and the Congress to follow that common sense for the good of the country."

The White House responded to the Democratic leaders' criticisms Monday, referring to a statement the president made last week, in which he said that he did not want his attorneys' legal maneuverings to mask his wrongdoing.

"The president has made clear that he does not want the work of his lawyers to get in the way of his admission that he had an improper relationship and he misled people to keep it private," said a statement read by Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House Counsel's Office. "No legalisms should obscure the fact that it was wrong, he apologized for it and he has asked for forgiveness."

Kasich
Rep. John Kasich  

In another development three days after the release of Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report, Rep. John Kasich, an Ohio Republican and possible presidential candidate, joined other Republicans in saying he believes Clinton should resign.

To stem the flow of impeachment talk, The White House plans to announce additions to its staff sometime this week as part of an effort to put forward Clinton's case to lawmakers.

Aides say several names are being mentioned, including a former Democratic Rep. Michael Barnes of Maryland; former Sen. George Mitchell; and State Department official Greg Craig. Craig may well be the front-runner, according to one source.

Also mentioned is California Rep. Vic Fazio, a Democrat. Fazio is not seeking re-election but would not be available to help until his term expires. The positions would be an "ambassador" of sorts from the White House to Capitol Hill to carry the president's defense directly to members.

Fazio
Rep. Vic Fazio  

CNN also has learned that some leading Democratic staffers are debating what punishment short of an impeachment inquiry could be created, something that in the words of one congressional attorney "doesn't impeach him for lying about sex but doesn't condone perjury either." Another source familiar with these nascent discussions called it "a search for censure-plus," but said it was "more a thought, an idea, a work in progress."

Over the weekend, the president made calls mainly to Democratic lawmakers, but also one to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The president and the senator ended up speaking minutes before Hatch was to appear on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Hatch would not tell reporters exactly what they said, but did say, "I believe he's grasped the gravity of the situation. I won't talk about our conversation (Sunday) morning but I believe in having this conversation, I believe he knows how grave it is and I think he knows how important it is and he's trying to work through this."

Hatch also said Clinton should forget reliance on legal hair-splitting in making his defense against Starr's report, saying, "It's counter productive and I think it makes people even today think he's not telling the truth, and frankly it's time to just admit it, go from there, say he didn't mean to commit perjury ... "

Hatch
Sen. Orrin Hatch  

Aides say the political team is taking charge of the case beginning this week.

Clinton faces possible impeachment because of his actions in the aftermath of his admitted sexual affair with Lewinsky. On Friday, congressional leaders released Starr's 445-page report, which outlines 11 grounds for possible impeachment.

Clinton's lawyers, however, argue that none of the grounds justify impeachment and say Starr has failed to make a case.

No comment from Starr

Starr declined to comment Monday morning on whether he regrets having submitted such a graphic report to Congress. "I'm not going to be commenting on the report," he said as he was leaving for work. "The process is in place."

Starr ignored the question when a reporter asked if he felt "relieved."

When questioned about possible plans to file any additional report to Congress, Starr replied, "Well, as we've said, we have other phases of our investigation to bring ... to completion."

Cohen stands by Clinton

Defense Secretary William Cohen expressed confidence Monday that Clinton can carry on in office.

Asked before a meeting with members of the Japanese Diet if he still had the same level of confidence in the president, Cohen replied, "I believe the president is capable of carrying out his responsibilities as commander-in-chief."

CNN's Eileen O'Connor, John King, Dave Adhicary and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

Investigating the President

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Monday, September 14, 1998

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