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White House weighs impeachment trial strategy

Gore calls on Senate to be 'voice of reason'

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, December 21) -- President Bill Clinton's supporters are working on a two-pronged defense strategy, looking for a possible compromise on censure while also considering a constitutional challenge to the House impeachment proceedings.

On the first front, the White House hopes to work with sympathizers in the Senate to craft a censure proposal as a way of avoiding a protracted Senate trial.

Impeachment

The strategy's second prong is more aggressive, with the possibility the White House could question whether it was constitutional for the House of Representatives of the 105th Congress to take action on impeachment and refer its charges to the Senate in the 106th Congress.

On Sunday, Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta, said the White House legal team would consider whether to challenge the constitutionality of the lame-duck House sending perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Clinton to the incoming 106th Congress.

"I think that our legal team will take a look at that in the days to come," Podesta said on CNN's "Late Edition. "Some of the constitutional experts who have reviewed that matter believe that it is not consistent with the Constitution to have done this in a lame-duck Congress, especially in the partisan way that they did that. So, I think we'll have to take a look at that."

A constitutional challenge could be a risky course, though, for a president already accused of parsing words and employing an overly legalistic defense. Clinton faces Senate conviction and removal from office in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Sen. John Breaux (D-Louisiana) warned it would be "a serious mistake to try to settle this with legalese."

"I think anything that is perceived as parliamentary maneuvering to get out of this is not going to be accepted by the American public," Breaux said. "It's going to have to be out front. It's going to have to be fair."

The White House also is preparing for a Senate trial, and the possibility of testimony from key players in the Lewinsky scandal, including Lewinsky, her onetime friend Linda Tripp, presidential friend Vernon Jordan and presidential secretary Betty Currie.

Meanwhile, Vice President Al Gore called on the Senate to be "the voice of reason, deliberation and healing that America needs" and to "forge a fair, bipartisan compromise to end this matter promptly."

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said the House action was unprecedented in this century, the product of "an illegitimate and unfair process" in which Republicans reneged on pledges to proceed with impeachment only if there was bipartisan support and to allow "a vote of conscience" on the alternative of censure.

"Because of politics, the House majority party has impeached the president because they could do it, because they had the power to do it and without making an effective case for it," Lockhart told his daily news briefing.

After Lockhart's briefing, though, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told CNN, "I think the White House must start toning down the rhetoric."

Clinton continues to insist he will not resign to spare the country a Senate trial, and those around him say he is committed to fighting to save his presidency. Leon Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff, said resignation is not part of Clinton's vocabulary.

Some Senate Republicans are talking about seeking an alternative to removing the president from office.

Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran said assuming that the required two-thirds vote in the Senate -- 67 votes -- for conviction is not there, the Senate needs to debate the option of censure.

"I do think that the leadership has to do a hard count and determine whether or not there are 34 or more who would not vote under the current circumstances and the knowledge that we have today for impeachment under any circumstances," added Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has said he is committed to at least starting an impeachment trial, and some Republican senators say censure is not an acceptable option.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter said censure "is not worth a tinker's damn."

Conventional wisdom is that there simply are not enough votes in the Senate to convict the president and remove him from office. But while the odds may be in Clinton's favor, the outcome is far from certain, because he cannot count on unified partisan support from Democrats.

From the start of the Lewinsky saga, some of his most vocal critics in his party have been Democratic senators, including Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

One other option would be an immediate halt to a Senate trial. That would only take 51 votes.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Chris Black and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.

Investigating the President

MORE STORIES:

Monday, December 21, 1998

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