Why Clinton Urged to Clear Air

Eager to avoid impeachment hearings, lawmakers in both parties want president to tell full truth about Lewinsky.

Many lawmakers want Bill Clinton to rescue the presidency from the Monica Lewinsky matter with a full public accounting of his relationship with the former White House intern.

The growing chorus advising this come-clean approach is based on the desire of both Republicans and Democrats to avoid impeachment proceedings.

If Clinton now admits that he has not been telling the truth in the affair, Congress - which ultimately decides whether to impeach the president or not - would surely look on the case with more leniency. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's momentum might slow to a crawl.

Starr "would fold up his tent, write a report, and go home," says C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel to President Bush. But Americans might be angered. "They might say, 'Thanks a lot for putting us through this for six months,' " says Mr. Gray.

The implication behind this view is that the president has been lying or at best leaving too much unexplained. Yet despite the lurid speculation of recent days, few people know the facts in the matter or can rule out that the president has been telling the truth all along.

As the Lewinsky investigation nears its final phase, a case that has taken many unpredictable twists and turns may well take more before it's over.

Many high-ranking Washingtonians, including Democrats and some White House officials, have been weighing the pros and cons of a "mea culpa" strategy since Monica Lewinsky struck an immunity deal with independent counsel Starr last week, clearing the way for her to testify before his Washington grand jury.

The idea behind the strategy: If Clinton threw himself on the mercy of the public, and said he had been lying about a sexual affair in order to save his family embarrassment, the whole thing could pass quickly.

On Sunday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the influential Senate Judiciary Committee, said on "Meet the Press" that if Clinton explained himself, "the president would have a reasonable chance of getting through this. I don't know anybody at the top of the system [in Congress] ... who really wants to see the president hurt in this matter."

Complicating everything is whether the issue is more than a lie about a sexual relationship. Senator Hatch made it clear that if obstruction of justice is involved, impeachment would have to be considered.

The word from the White House is that the president will not make any such speech. He is preparing for his testimony on Aug. 17 and insisting he has been telling the truth.

One reason Hatch and some other lawmakers have discussed an air-clearing statement by the White House is that a Clinton mea culpa could relieve the Congress of the burden of considering impeachment proceedings. Right now, lawmakers' mood towards such prospective proceedings remains wary.

Who judges first

Any report from Starr alleging presidential wrongdoing would land in the House of Representatives, which constitutionally has the responsibility of beginning impeachment proceedings if a president has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors."

It may well come at a time when, for both House Republicans and Democrats, the most important calculation is next November's elections.

Republicans, with a narrow 11-vote majority, are fighting to keep control of the chamber. They are worried about a hot potato landing in their laps at a time when they need to be out campaigning.

They are wary about a no-win situation in which they look like they are playing politics if they quickly begin investigating the president or dragging the matter out for electoral advantage if they do not.

"Whatever you do, you'll be accused of political motives," says Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee that would conduct any investigation.

After a short period last spring when Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia spoke out on the matter, the GOP leadership has reverted to a low-key posture.

Democrats, on the other hand, are wary of possible further revelations about the president or White House missteps that might dash any hopes they have of regaining a House majority.

While some drop hints of private unease, in public Democrats stand behind Clinton.

"Based on what we know so far, Democrats are prepared to defend the president," says Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, chairman of the House Democratic caucus.

Many observers say this Congress won't have near enough time to act on a Starr report, which at the earliest could arrive sometime in September. Representative Hyde is noncommittal about timing, saying that he has no idea when a report will come or how complex it will be.

Eye on public opinion

Ultimately, however, impeachment proceedings are more political than criminal. The Constitution doesn't define what "high crimes and misdemeanors" are.

The House itself must do so, and will certainly do it with an eye on public opinion. There seems to be a widespread feeling among Republicans that hard evidence of a serious crime such as obstruction of justice or witness-tampering will be needed before the House will act.

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