Clinton censure likely?

Support grows in Senate for alternative to guilty verdict at impeachment trial.

Could Bill Clinton come away unscathed from an impeachment trial in the Senate?

Both Republicans and Democrats say that right now they don't have the votes to convict him. And in recent days, several senators have said they don't believe censure is the way to go, either.

What's the point of censuring the president if he's already suffered the strongest constitutional censure possible, impeachment in the House? asks Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri.

His GOP colleague from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, agrees, noting that the Senate is not in the business of punishing the president. It should simply have a trial and either convict or acquit. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is urging the White House to stop pushing for censure and support a trial, in which President Clinton would be exonerated by a failure to convict.

Yet, despite this reasoning, it is likely that the Senate will indeed do something short of conviction to reprimand the president - if for no other reason than to allow Democrats to express their displeasure with his behavior.

"Democratic senators and representatives will want to be on record expressing their disapproval of the president's conduct," says Lanny Davis, former White House counsel for Clinton. "I think they need that for many of their constituents just as the Republicans seemed to need impeachment for their constituents."

Supporters of the president such as Mr. Davis argue that the vote on impeachment needs to be repudiated. They consider it "historically disingenuous" because it defined down impeachment to mean indictment instead of intention to actually remove Clinton from office.

Their argument may have been bolstered by four Republicans who voted for impeachment in the House. They recently urged the Senate not to remove Clinton, but to censure him instead.

In the absence of a two-thirds majority needed to remove the president, it now looks like the Senate is starting to coalesce around a censure option - though when that might happen, what it would say, or even if the president would agree to it are all still unknowns.

Of course, it's possible that nothing punitive may happen to Clinton, "but our read at this point is more support for censure than not," says Ranit Schmelzer, an aide to Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota.

Senator Daschle has been staying in close touch with majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi as the Senate prepares for a trial. Even with acquittal as the likely outcome, both sides see at least the start of a trial as inevitable - though it may get cut short with a move to censure, or conclude with censure.

Mr. Lott warned Democrats this week not to rush to a reprimand in the form of censure, adding that there could be constitutional problems with it. "I don't think a magic formula has been found yet" to end the impeachment controversy, he told the Los Angeles Times.

Whenever the Senate takes up censure, a key sticking point will be whether Republicans insist the president admit he lied under oath to a grand jury. That's a position supported by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and other Senate Republicans.

But don't count on this president capitulating. "He will not say 'I lied under oath.' That is totally off the table," says Davis, noting that this is his personal take on the issue, not an official White House position.

As long as the possibility exists that Clinton will be indicted after he leaves office, the president will continue to use words like "misled" or may even say he was less than truthful, says Davis, but he won't directly admit to lying.

One way past such an impasse would be for Democrats to convince a handful of Republicans on wording that the president would agree to. Only six GOP votes would be needed for a majority to pass a censure requiring the president's signature.

But another would be for the Senate to simply cut the White House out of the picture - to pass a "sense of the Senate" that does not require the president's signature and could be as harshly worded as the members want.

In the end, say historians and political analysts, anything short of conviction in the Senate will still be a lesser punishment than the brand of the House impeachment vote. No matter how much Democrats claim the partisan nature of the House vote undermines its legitimacy, they can never reverse the act.

History books, says political scientist John Kessel, are not subtle when it comes to ranking presidents. "They don't pick up on the nuances," says the Ohio State University professor. "The one thing that will be mentioned is that he was impeached. This will hang on. It's an indelible stain."

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