More Lawmakers Seeking Impeachment Escape Hatch

Hearings rev up this week, but Clinton may have upper hand in election aftermath.

Where's the off switch to the impeachment machine?

That's what lawmakers and the White House are asking as the process grinds on - even though most Americans, evidently, believe it should end quickly.

Since the midterm election, fewer and fewer people in Washington - including Republicans - have much of an appetite for removing President Clinton from office, even if he did lie under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

But how can Republicans who just a month ago said perjury was grounds for impeachment now turn around and say it doesn't meet the test?

"They've started this machine, and they're going to have to find some way to stop it without losing face - that's the challenge," says Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and author of a book on impeachment.

Mr. Gerhardt was one of 19 historians, constitutional scholars, and former Justice Department officials scheduled to testify yesterday about the historical context of impeachment.

Also this week, Mr. Clinton is expected to respond to a questionnaire sent him by House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois.

THE impeachment inquiry itself, however, may be affected by the fluidity surrounding the leadership upheaval in the House. Already, the lead contender for the post of House Speaker, Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana, has acknowledged that Americans don't want the president to be impeached.

But speaking on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Mr. Livingston went on to say that, while public opinion "would have to be considered," Congress "cannot simply disregard the fact that there are other people in our society ... who have been likewise charged and have lost their jobs."

Just how could Congress exit from the impeachment highway?

The most expeditious path is for the Judiciary Committee to simply vote down articles of impeachment, say legal and political observers. Then the issue would never make it to the House floor.

But the committee is full of ideologues who are more likely to follow their conscience than the electorate. A group of 10 committee moderates, however, has been exploring alternative punishments to impeachment, including censure, which appears to be gaining momentum. Still, chairman Hyde so far maintains that talk about censure is premature and that, moreover, punishment is the Senate's job.

If the Judiciary Committee were to vote for impeachment, it's now less likely the full House would go along. "The fact is, that this is ultimately a political decision," Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York said Sunday on Fox television. The Senate, meanwhile, is almost certain not to convict and remove Clinton - if the process ever gets that far.

The White House, meanwhile, maintains it is still open to a plea bargain. News reports, however, say Clinton is no longer willing to discuss "censure-plus" - a punishment that would add a hefty fine to a congressional rebuke.

Indeed, Clinton now appears to be on top in his struggle with Congress. Legal scholars doubt he will directly answer Hyde's 81 yes-or-no questions, which are designed to pin the president down on central facts in the case.

Rather, they believe Clinton's lawyers will respond with a narrative that reiterates the president's testimony and public statements, or else refers the committee to those statements. This would leave Hyde with an uncomfortable decision: whether to proceed with contempt-of-Congress charges against the president for not answering the questions.

Still, Clinton is being warned, by those inside and outside the White House, not to get too self-assured. Says former chief of staff Leon Panetta, "I hope they don't feel too good."

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