Lawmakers who believe President Clinton should be punished but not impeached are struggling with the wording of a censure resolution that is harsh enough to win votes from presidential critics but not so vicious that Clinton's allies refuse to sign.
Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.), the first Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation, defended his sternly worded resolution Sunday. It says Clinton "has prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice by providing false and misleading testimony under oath."
McHale's proposal, which he unveiled last week, goes on to "censure and condemn" Clinton for "a pattern of deceitful and dishonest conduct that was grossly inconsistent with his constitutional obligation and sacred duty to faithfully execute the laws of the United States of America."
But in an interview Sunday, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) characterized that language as too harsh and indicated that she and others are drafting resolutions of their own to bring the furor to an end.
"I believe it is appropriate to draw a resolution in a different form [from McHale's], and that's what I'm doing," Jackson-Lee said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "Frankly, there are many being drafted right now."
Another Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, made his own case for rebuking the president in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday that said the odds are against removing Clinton from office.
"Congress needs a strong statement that makes clear to ourselves and posterity that we are a nation that understands the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood," Lieberman said.
Still, the effort to find the right words to describe Clinton's conduct strikes impeachment advocates as a fruitless exercise, especially since the president maintains he did not engage in certain misconduct.
"This censure idea, without an admission on the president's part, is a political cop-out, and our legacy will be that we have made the president above the law," said Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who considers censure as no more than "a nasty letter."
Graham, also appearing on "Meet the Press," expressed disappointment that, in responses submitted Friday to 81 questions from the House Judiciary Committee, Clinton did not say that he had lied under oath.
"The law allows people to be treated differently if they've come before the court and said, 'I'm sorry and I'm guilty,' " Graham said. "But somebody who plays games to the bitter end, tries to have it both ways, dances on the head of a pin, in my opinion, has forfeited the right to lead this country."
McHale, who appeared on "Meet the Press," agreed with Republicans that approval of a censure resolution could depend on Clinton being more forthright. "We can honorably conclude this matter if the president were to show some true candor and genuine remorse."
But an admission of crimes by Clinton is considered unlikely. While acknowledging that he misled people about his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Clinton has steadfastly denied breaking any laws and would be unlikely to agree to a censure resolution that could open him to legal liability once his term ends.
Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.), another opponent of censure, said a punishment short of impeachment should not even be considered until after the House votes on the recommendations of the Judiciary Committee. After a public hearing on perjury and several closed-door depositions this week, the committee is gearing up for a vote on articles of impeachment in mid-December.
"The censure idea, I think, is dangerous," Bryant said on "Meet the Press." "I don't think we ought to rush into something because of the expediency issue. . . . If there's any possibility that you can interpret the Constitution to allow a censure, it would be where the Senate would do it, following articles of impeachment being sent over from the House."
One senator who would be central to that process is Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who worried about the precedent that censure would establish as regards the balance of powers.
"One of the problems is we could have [censure of presidents] become a matter of course after a while. . . ," Hatch said on ABC-TV's "This Week." "And I've seen Congresses where they would do that as a matter of course. I think . . . that's something we'd have to very seriously consider."