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Going for total victory

Clinton wants to fight his G.O.P. foes on every aspect of impeachment. But if it drags on, he may get the blame

By James Carney and John F. Dickerson

TIME magazine

(TIME, Oct. 26) -- By the time he had wrapped up his half-a-trillion-dollar budget deal late last week, things were going so well for Bill Clinton that he went out of his way to thank his enemies. Never mind that just a week before, those same Republican lawmakers had launched open-ended impeachment hearings against him. In that short period the Administration and congressional Democrats had outmaneuvered Republican leaders, forcing them to accept much of Clinton's spending priorities and sowing discord in G.O.P. ranks. The Republicans caved on everything from paying for 100,000 new teachers to providing an $18 billion infusion to the International Monetary Fund. Is this really what happens to a President in serious trouble? "I just can't tell you how grateful I am for these achievements," he gushed.

Grateful, and emboldened. With a budget victory notched in their belts, Clinton and his advisers began plotting an aggressive defense strategy aimed at punishing Republicans for their quest to impeach him by turning their proceedings into an even more unpopular spectacle. Instead of cutting a deal in the House that would head off impeachment, Clinton's team is choreographing a prolonged partisan fight with Republicans over virtually every aspect of the inquiry. The opening battle will come this Wednesday when the President's legal team meets for the first time with House Judiciary Committee lawyers. Cooperation isn't on the agenda at the White House, where political aides are promising to spend the next two weeks attacking Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr in the run-up to the crucial Nov. 3 midterm elections. Says a top White House adviser: "People who want this to be easy are deluding themselves."

But Clinton's give-no-ground strategy worries his allies in Congress more than it does his opponents. Eager to get the impeachment process over with, Democrats on Capitol Hill have little appetite for adopting the President's defense that he was "legally accurate" when he insisted under oath that he'd never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. They would much rather quickly concede that Clinton was lying and then argue that the lies weren't serious enough to merit throwing him out of office. That approach puts them in synch with public opinion but at odds with the White House. "If people think it's Bill Clinton who won't let it go away, he'll lose the nation," complains a House Democratic strategist.

Which is why Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde last week tried to shift blame for a protracted process to the White House. Just a week after his chief counsel, David Schippers, had outlined 15 charges against the President, Hyde was telling reporters he planned to "streamline" the inquiry by limiting the case to three core allegations--that the President lied, obstructed justice and tampered with witnesses. But any hope of finishing the inquiry by year's end, Hyde warned, depended on the White House's willingness to stipulate that at least some of the facts in Starr's report are true.

Instead of taking Hyde at his word when he promised a speedy inquiry, the White House took his new stance as a sign of weakness--a reaction to polls showing an incipient public backlash against the G.O.P. And contrary to its Democratic allies in the House, who are inclined to negotiate with Hyde, the President's team thinks the best strategy is to take on Starr, refuse to concede any facts that might put Clinton in future legal jeopardy, and dare House Republicans to impeach him in a party-line vote. If they do, the assumption is that the Republicans could never get the 67 votes they would need in the Senate to convict him--leaving the President bloodied but vindicated. "We have no incentive to drag it out," says a senior adviser to the President. "But we do have a lot of incentive to go for total victory."

In this hall of mirrors, muscular talk by some presidential advisers could be pre-game bluster aimed at spooking Republicans into an early deal. After all, pursuing acquittal in a Senate trial would mean Clinton would have to accept a place in history as the second President to be impeached by the House. Top House Democrats will be encouraging the White House to avoid that fate and negotiate with Hyde. Democrats may even be willing to jettison their plans to call Starr as a witness--if Hyde agrees to a debate over whether any of Clinton's alleged offenses merit impeachment.

If a deal is within reach and Clinton balks, or if the hearings go into 1999 with no end in sight, the President could have a dwindling number of allies. "You could see a situation where Democrats, Republicans, the media and the public all end up on one side in favor of a compromise," says a Democrat. "And on the other side you'd have Bill and Hillary, refusing to give an inch."

--With reporting by Karen Tumulty/Washington

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Cover Date: October 26, 1998

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