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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

Could Clinton escape censure, too?

There are doubts about that alternative in the Senate, too

December 31, 1998
Web posted at: 5:42 p.m. EST (2242 GMT)


WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, December 31) -- By conventional wisdom, there are not 67 votes in the Senate to convict President Bill Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice and toss him out of office. But could Clinton escape censure as well for what even his supporters say was his "reprehensible" conduct with Monica Lewinsky?

In yet another Alice-in-Wonderland moment in a sex-and-perjury scandal that has seen many of them, it may be that the president's most vocal critics in the Senate are the least likely to support censure.

Some senators think there will be a consensus for censure.

"I do believe that there's going to be a pretty strong consensus for a very strong ... censure resolution," said Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Sen. Paul Wellstone  

But other senators are raising the same questions that members of the House raised about censure as an alternative to convicting Clinton.

"The idea of censure is basically a political idea," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). "And it seems to me it's a superfluous resolution. The president has already been impeached. That carries a censure that no resolution passed by the Senate could ever carry and I think it's a dangerous precedent."

Beyond the fear that what goes around comes around, conservatives argue that the founding fathers quite clearly meant impeachment and conviction to be the only means through which the legislative branch can address misconduct in the executive branch.

That is, there is conviction, acquittal or nothing at all.

"If Congress were to censure, fine or otherwise try to punish a president, it would dramatically alter the balance of power between the branches..." said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

To further turn things on their head, it may be that anti-censure Republicans will find their strongest allies come out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin is one of those who thinks the president does not have to deal and he should push for a clean acquittal, rather than agree to censure. It would not be the first time that strange bedfellows for different reasons joined forces to defeat a popular mainstream idea.

Still the biggest threat to a censure resolution is the details.

Should the president have to admit to something to avoid a lengthy trial? Should he have to sign a censure resolution? How tough should the wording be? Should there be a penalty?

In the Senate where 100 lawmakers can have 200 proposals, bipartisanly agreeable deals often crumble over the details.

It's possible that Clinton could walk away with an acquittal and no censure. In the history books, though, he still would bear the mark of the scandal and the House's December 19 impeachment vote.

Hyde objects to short timetable

Rep. Henry Hyde  

Meanwhile, plans for Clinton's Senate trial remain up in the air, and probably will not be finalized until after senators return for the new 106th Congress next week.

House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde has objected to a tentative plan for a short trial, which he says "would unwisely short-circuit the process."

Hyde, chief prosecutor of the 13 House managers in the trial, wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, (R-Mississippi) that he is concerned the Senate may call no witnesses and "might foreclose any trial" if a preliminary motion on the House-approved Articles of Impeachment fails to gain a two-thirds majority vote. That is the margin that would be needed to remove Clinton from office.

House managers for Clinton's impeachment trial

"I agree that we must move with all deliberate speed to resolve this matter," Hyde wrote. "However, we must not act so hastily that the president and the House of Representatives do not have a fair opportunity to present the case and the Senate does not have a fair opportunity to review a meaningful factual record."

Senate Majority Leader
Trent Lott

Proper presentation of the evidence probably would "require the appearance of a limited number of witnesses," he wrote.

With the Senate out of session this week, Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle have been conferring by phone on the trial's details.

Though no final decisions have been made, the two have been mulling over various scenarios, including one that would begin the trial January 11, after preliminaries a few days earlier, and end it perhaps as early as Friday of the following week.

Another plan would be to take a preliminary vote on whether either Article 1, charging perjury, or Article 3, charging obstruction of justice, is provable and rises to the level of high crime or misdemeanor. If two-thirds of the Senate said yes, a full trial with witnesses would be held. Otherwise, the trial would recess, and the Senate would move to a censure resolution.

Senate Minority Leader
Tom Daschle

But Hyde said the Senate should hear witness testimony to perform its duty "to determine the guilt or innocence of President Clinton." And he said a full trial could move quickly.

"We need not sacrifice substance and duty for speed," he wrote.

A short timetable could mean delaying the president's State of the Union address to Congress, set for January 19. For now though, the White House is resisting such a move.

CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

Investigating the President


Thursday, December 31, 1998

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