Senate pursues options short of conviction
'Finding of fact' is one idea, but will it be a bipartisan answer?
WASHINGTON — If not conviction and removal from office, then what?
As it becomes increasingly obvious that the votes needed to oust President Clinton will not materialize, witnesses notwithstanding, senators are searching for a rebuke that is short of conviction.
Driving the current maneuvering in the Senate is a determination that the president understand just how unhappy many lawmakers are with his actions. Few senators want to enable him to claim he's been vindicated when the trial ends, perhaps by mid-month.
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California puts it: "We don't want to come out of this leaving a view that this conduct is acceptable for the president of the United States."
Bipartisan answer eludes
A leading idea, but a controversial one, is a "finding of fact" plan, in which a majority of senators would find Mr. Clinton committed some of the acts charged by the House prosecutors. A task force of seven Republicans, appointed by Senate majority leader Trent Lott, is expected to come up with draft language today, which it will then test out on certain Republicans and Democrats.
In the end, it's the inclusion of at least some Democrats that may be key. If the senators fail to find a bipartisan approach, they will only enable the White House to claim - as it did during a kind of pep rally on the South Lawn on the very day the House voted two articles of impeachment - that the whole procedure was illegitimate because it was partisan .
"If it's not bipartisan, it doesn't mean anything," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst here.
As sure as the sun rises, however, is the fact that Democrats and Republicans are far apart on how best to register their disapproval.
The finding-of-fact plan, floated last week by freshman GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, is by no means the assured course of action.
Democrats and the White House don't like the idea. When it comes to the impeachment trial, they say, the Constitution allows only for a vote to convict or acquit, with automatic removal following conviction. The Collins plan is a "de facto conviction without removal," says White House spokesman James Kennedy.
"Finding of fact is a misnomer. It's a finding of guilt," echoes David Carle, spokesman for Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
That plan is stronger than the censure option, the alternative the Democrats favor, in that it would connect Clinton with wrongs alleged by the managers. Mixed in with the impeachment
process, it would also become a nonretractable part of the trial's record. Censure, which would be proposed after the trial, could be revoked - as it has been in the past.
The current thinking is that the Collins motion would be introduced after the senators hear all of the evidence, but before their up-or-down vote to convict or acquit.
Multiple dangers lurk in the Collins plan for the White House. If, say, two-thirds of the senators find the president committed certain charges, they're that much closer to removing him, even if there's an understanding they won't. The "findings" could be interpreted as high crimes and misdemeanors and the acquittal challenged before the Supreme Court.
Moreover, the findings could buttress independent counsel Kenneth Starr's case if he indicts Clinton after his White House term ends in 2000 - if Mr. Starr doesn't indict the president while he's still in office, as recent news reports indicate the independent counsel is considering.
Not all Republicans are on board with the findings of fact, and supporters of the Collins plan have spent the past few days defending its constitutionality and insisting that it won't include sensitive language such as the words "guilty," or "perjury" or "obstruction of justice."
Dave Lackey, a spokesman for GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, says the findings draft will aim to be broad and short, to gain support of the GOP majority and perhaps even some Democrats - though only a simple majority would be required to pass it.
"Democrats have expressed considerable interest, even if unease," says Mr. Lackey, whose boss is on the task force to draft the findings of fact.
But whether it's findings of fact or censure, the devil's in the details. Both approaches could break down over failure to agree on language.
One way to avoid all of this would be to have "censure 100," as Brookings Institution political analyst Stephen Hess is calling it. Each senator, he suggests, could simply write his or her own statement of displeasure with the president's behavior.
Mark Rozell, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that with either findings of fact or censure, senators seek to admonish the president without going so far as to remove him. "But there's a question whether you can have it both ways," he says. "The Senate votes on whether to convict the president. Period."