As the House impeachment investigation draws swiftly to a close, a pragmatic push to censure President Clinton is gaining momentum in Congress as the only sanction believed capable of winning bipartisan support - as well as approval from most Americans.
Yet strong disagreements remain among lawmakers over whether censuring a president is constitutional, whether it would set a dangerous political precedent, and whether it would be a suitable punishment for Mr. Clinton's alleged misconduct in trying to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Indeed, the act would be historic - Clinton would be the first US president to be censured by Congress in 130 years, experts say.
Renewed interest in censure illustrates how hard-headed political calculations are upstaging high-minded constitutional debates as the House nears what is expected to be a narrow, partisan vote on at least one article of impeachment in the week of Dec. 14.
"There is a mainstream consensus emerging that [censure] is the best for the nation," says Rep. Paul McHale (D) of Pennsylvania, arguing that even if the House succeeded in impeaching the president on a slim, party-line vote, the Senate would surely fail to convict him.
A harsh critic of the president, Representative McHale last week attempted to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike by proposing a bluntly worded joint resolution to censure Clinton for obstructing justice and lying under oath.
Senate Democrats are also promoting censure as an alternative to impeachment. "If the House chooses not to impeach, as seems likely, then we must censure," wrote Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut yesterday in a commentary in The New York Times.
AKEY question now is whether Republican leaders, who have the power to block a censure resolution, will ultimately allow one to reach the House floor.
Some GOP leaders, including majority whip Tom DeLay, seek to rule out the censure option with an aggressive "impeachment or nothing" strategy. The possibility of censure, they fear, could diminish the likelihood of impeachment, drawing away critical votes by Democrats such as McHale and moderate Republicans. "The American people need to ask themselves, after the censure resolution has passed, what justice has been done?" says Representative DeLay.
Conservative Republicans favoring impeachment appeared strengthened in their resolve after Clinton responded on Friday to 81 questions from the House Judiciary Committee by continuing to insist he did not lie under oath. "To me, he's an unrepentant perjurer who should lose his job," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. Committee work continues with a public hearing tomorrow on perjury. Already, as many as 100 Republican members are reportedly opposed to censure on various grounds, according to GOP staffers.
Yet other influential Republicans, such as incoming House Speaker Robert Livingston of Louisiana and House Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon of New York, remain open to the possibility of censure should impeachment fail.
At the heart of the debate over censure is whether it would constitute meaningful punishment - or a mere slap on the wrist - for what most members of Congress and the public agree was dishonest and dishonorable conduct by Clinton.
In part, the answer depends on the content and form of a censure resolution. Censure could take three forms: a simple resolution passed by a majority of the House or Senate; a concurrent, identical resolution of both chambers; or a joint House and Senate resolution. A joint resolution, such as McHale's, would carry extra weight because Clinton would have to sign it into law.
"This would be a sharp and meaningful rebuke," says McHale, contending his proposal would leave "an indelible stain" on Clinton's presidency. He is urging support for his resolution among House Republican leaders as well as Democrats, many of whom may prefer a milder, one-line censure statement expected to be offered by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts.
Another contentious issue is whether censure of the president by Congress is permitted by the Constitution, with many legal scholars and lawmakers arguing that impeachment is the only valid option. Censure is most commonly used by Congress to discipline its members. Although censure of presidents is rare, it is not unprecedented. Four presidents - Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and James Buchanan - were censured, according to congressional researchers.
A related concern is whether censuring Clinton would set a bad political precedent, paving the way for its abuse by presidential opponents in the future. Indeed, they note parallels between the extreme partisanship that existed in American politics in the pre-Civil War period - the last time presidential censure was common - and the polarized political atmosphere prevailing today.
"If the level of partisanship stays and we have divided governments and controversial agendas ... you could have the same possibility of censure emerge," says one congressional staffer.
Even McHale, who called in vain for Clinton to resign and then joined 30 Democrats in breaking party ranks to vote for the Republican impeachment inquiry, agrees censure is not the ideal option.
"Once established as a precedent, it could be easily abused," he acknowledges. Still, he contends, "the unique nature of President Clinton's conduct requires an extraordinary, if not unprecedented, remedy."