Historic Rebuke

The House of Representatives confronts a decision of grave import: Shall it, for only the second time in US history, impeach the president of the United States?

President Clinton is charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power following a seven-month investigation by special counsel Kenneth Starr and hearings by the House Judiciary Committee.

Removal from office is extremely unlikely. Dishonor before history appears very likely. But what form of rebuke will it be? Impeachment by the House or censure by both houses of Congress? If the latter, how severe a censure?

It's useful to recall what led to this juncture: a questionable lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. She charged Mr. Clinton had sexually harassed her on one occasion while governor. The lawsuit was filed years after the alleged incident and carried clear political overtones.

As part of that suit, Clinton was deposed about his relationship with female employees. He had had an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and the Jones legal team had gotten wind of it. His attempts to cover up that relationship got him in trouble.

President Clinton alone - not his political opponents, not Judge Starr, not committee chairman Henry Hyde - dug the hole he is in. His behavior was immoral, arrogant, and arguably illegal. He violated his oath of office, courtroom oaths, and marriage vows.

The charges

The president lied under oath in his January deposition, his August grand jury testimony, and his responses to Congress about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. A serious case can be made that this constituted legal perjury.

There is strong but circumstantial evidence that the president obstructed justice. He may have encouraged Lewinsky to file a false affidavit about their relationship and to hide gifts he had given her. He may have tried to coach his secretary Betty Currie, who he must have known could be a witness in the Jones suit. But the testimony on these points is contradictory. The required "clear and convincing" evidence of obstruction does not exist.

The Constitution

That leaves the perjury charges. Perjury is a serious offense. More than 100 people are in jail for perjury before federal courts. The question then must be: Does Mr. Clinton's alleged perjury, given the circumstances under which it occurred, rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" required for impeachment under the Constitution ?

Each member of the House will have to decide that in accordance with conscience and a careful estimate of the moral needs of the nation - today and in future. In part that decision will also have to take into account whether a dramatic, large-majority, bipartisan censure signed by Mr. Clinton as an admission of guilt carries more impact than a narrow majority, party-line impeachment in the House that runs aground in a Senate trial and could lead to a weaker censure in the next Congress.

Impeachment supporters make a legitimate case that the president's lies under oath undermine, even attack, the judicial system and the rule of law. He is the nation's chief law-enforcement officer; a role model for all federal law-enforcers.

But does that outweigh the damage that might be done to the governmental process by an impeachment trial sucking all three branches of government - president, Senate, chief justice - into the maelstrom?

Impeachment on a party-line vote might create a precedent tempting whichever party in future holds a congressional majority to vent its frustration on a president who thwarts it.

The option

Yet the president must not be let off the hook. That's why a "censure-plus" option may in the end carry the most weight against Mr. Clinton and the most impact upon future presidents. Congress would censure the president in a resolution he would have to sign, acknowledging responsibility. Under it, Mr. Clinton would agree to pay a meaningful fine from his personal funds. Congress can't constitutionally fine him.

The House leadership deserves the prayerful support of the nation as it considers what votes to allow. Impeachment or censure, after all, is the choice about which undecided members are searching their consciences and consulting their constituents.

The Monitor does not favor the destruction of this presidency. But the country and the president will continue to suffer while the latter holds to the fiction that he did not lie.

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