High crime or just a moral lapse?

Imminent House vote on impeachment pivots on whether Clinton deliberately subverted the law.

Did President Clinton commit perjury, or was he just being "evasive"? Did he obstruct justice, or simply "delay discovery of the truth"? Did he abuse his power or merely violate moral standards when he misled the nation about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

Such questions lie at the heart of the House Judiciary Committee debate as it nears a historic vote today or tomorrow on four articles of impeachment drafted by Republicans - as well as on a milder censure proposal offered by Democrats.

Indeed, as the momentous votes approach, the three-dozen members of the politically polarized Judiciary Committee appear to be disputing less the "what" than the weight of the president's conduct: Did he act in a deliberate attempt to subvert the legal system - and thus deserve impeachment - or primarily out of personal moral weakness that warrants only censure?

Practically, the crucial issue is which argument will prove most persuasive among the 30-odd undecided moderate Republicans in the full House, which is expected as early as Thursday next week to take up one or more articles sent by the committee.

(Already, six of the 228 House GOP members say they will oppose impeachment, while three of the 206 Democrats favor it.)

Mr. Clinton is likely to telephone undecided Republicans in coming days to personally lobby them, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said yesterday. However, two GOP moderates, Reps. Marge Roukema and Bob Franks of New Jersey, have already announced they are leaning toward impeachment.

In a thematic closing statement yesterday, Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell took to the offense. He showed videotape of Clinton's testimony on Jan. 17 and Aug. 17 to dispute allegations that the president committed perjury. He then accused independent counsel Kenneth Starr of acting with political "partiality and zeal" to entrap the president.

Mr. Lowell also played tape recordings of Ms. Lewinsky disputing that she and the president had "sex" and saying instead they "fooled around." He urged the committee not to allow convoluted definitions of sexual relations to throw the nation into a constitutional "quagmire." He said no sufficient grounds exist for impeachment. Lowering the bar would "permanently weaken the presidency" and "doom the country" to government paralysis and the "ordeal" of a Senate trial.

Immorality, not illegality?

Meanwhile, Democrats making the case for the president are placing overwhelming emphasis not on illegality, but on immorality. Using words such as "sinful" and "reprehensible," Clinton's defenders stress that while the president committed no crime, he jettisoned the high moral standards required by his office.

That message is echoed in the draft joint resolution for censure submitted by committee member Rep. Bill Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts. The resolution states that the president "egregiously failed" to set an example of honesty for the nation. The censure proposal, apparently in an effort to add an element of shame, requires Clinton's signature as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

The White House underscored yesterday that the president would be "open to any proposal" on censure - even one harsher than that proposed by Representative Delahunt - as a way to avoid impeachment. Clinton's spokesmen have also suggested that he might voluntarily accept a financial penalty - something the Constitution bars Congress from imposing on him.

Nevertheless, censure is still a highly uncertain proposition as the Republican House leadership continues to oppose allowing a censure vote on the House floor. Republicans have also criticized a possible financial penalty for the president as a "buyout."

For their part, the GOP majority, represented by counsel David Schippers, is pursuing a classic prosecutorial strategy by trying to build a strong factual case for impeachment.

More videotape

To buttress his case for perjury and obstruction of justice, Mr. Schippers also won approval to show clips of previously unreleased videotape of Clinton's deposition in the Jones sexual-harassment case. The videotape shows Clinton saying he cannot remember ever being alone with Lewinsky, and his lawyer Robert Bennett stating that Clinton did not have sex of any sort with her.

Such statements are central to the GOP's argument in Article II of the impeachment resolution that "the president provided perjurious, false, and misleading testimony" in written and sworn answers in the Jones case.

Perjury and lying under oath have been the focus of the committee's inquiry, and Republican members say the first two impeachment articles, which accuse Clinton of perjury, are the most likely to win committee approval.

"I think perjury is much more likely to pass," said committee member Christopher Cannon (R) of Utah. In contrast, the articles on obstruction of justice and abuse of power are "harder to sell," he said.

All the four strongly worded draft articles may be amended during the committee's markup today. Separate votes will be held on each of the articles of impeachment, followed by a vote on the Democrats' censure joint resolution. If any of them reach the House floor, the language may not be changed, according to a Judiciary Committee spokesman.

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