President Clinton and his attorneys came under growing pressure Sunday from Democrats as well as Republicans to concede that he lied under oath, as alleged by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and to throw himself at the mercy of the American people and Congress.
As the swirling debate in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter began to focus more intently on finding a way out of the wrenching national dilemma, Clinton supporters and critics alike said some form of punishment short of impeachment may be in order, such as a congressional reprimand or censure. Some expressed hope the matter could be resolved expeditiously, perhaps before the November elections.
Their suggestions amounted to a public entreaty to Clinton and his attorneys to consider striking the equivalent of a plea bargain with Congress to salvage his presidency and let the country move forward.
Clinton's lawyers have steadfastly denied that he purposely lied, either in his legal deposition in January for the Paula Corbin Jones civil lawsuit, or in his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17. The president himself said that night in a televised address that he was "legally accurate" when he denied having engaged in sexual relations with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
In a series of talk show appearances Sunday, the president's attorneys reiterated that position, which holds that Clinton did not consider his activities with Lewinsky to be covered by the broad definition of sexual relations presented to him by Jones' attorneys.
"I think the evidence there is overwhelming that he did lie," Lott said on "Fox News Sunday," adding that the apparent perjury "may well be" grounds for impeachment.
"Unless something changes," Lott said, "I don't see how [the House] can avoid" impeachment proceedings. Lott later expressed his hope that "it won't come to that" and suggested that Clinton "could" consider resigning.
A Clinton aide said Sunday that the president still has not read the 445-page report.
Lott and other key lawmakers suggested that the president's efforts to admit fault and seek forgiveness appear to be at odds with the ongoing legal strategy of denying that he committed perjury.
"One of the problems is, if the president reaches out, or he tries to be contrite . . . while simultaneously aggressively attacking through his lawyers the whole process and splitting legalistic hairs, there's a disconnect there," Lott said.
Speaking on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) agreed that the legal defense may be undercutting Clinton's public shows of contrition.
"I don't know if he's perjured himself," he said. "But if you come and say to the American people that 'I'm legally correct, I didn't have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky,' you're going to lose."
Ally Calls for Clinton to 'Come Clean'
In an interview, one influential House Democrat from California and a longtime Clinton ally, ardently agreed that the White House legal strategy is creating political problems for the president.
"Until the president stops putting up the false front--that he didn't perjure himself or didn't lie--contrition isn't possible," said the congressman, who asked to remain anonymous. Only after Clinton has "come clean," he added, "can we get on with how to assess the penalty and bring this to closure. I'd like to do it this year. . . . Too much is at stake to mess around with a legal defense."
With Congress returning to town today, its members and lawyers for Clinton engaged in a pitched battle for public opinion as the House Judiciary Committee ponders whether to commence an impeachment inquiry.
Over the weekend, committee members began sifting through 17 boxes of unreleased material that form the basis of Starr's allegations. Just how quickly any impeachment proceeding might unfold is difficult to say with certainty.
Some members, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), have proposed a lame-duck session of Congress to resolve the controversy after the November elections. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said he remains inclined to let the House adjourn for the year by early next month. Lott, for his part, said he does not "see any way" to complete an impeachment process in the current 105th Congress.
"I think we should not delay," he said. "At the same time, I do not think we should rush to judgment."
The president spent the day at the White House. Skipping church, he tended to an array of public business, according to deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta. Although Podesta said Clinton had not read Starr's report, the scandal clearly was on his mind.
In the morning, the president telephoned Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has criticized Clinton and urged him to issue a full apology. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee later characterized the conversation as "a very hard-hitting, very good exchange of what I feel and what he feels."
On "Face the Nation" shortly afterward, Hatch urged Clinton to "quit splitting legal hairs," and to offer an unequivocal apology that is not contradicted by his attorneys' arguments.
He added: "If they'll quit playing this legal game, and start being what he is--a basically warm, winning person who the American people have liked from the beginning, if he'll do that, and just acknowledge, 'Yeah, I've done some really bad things, I really screwed up here,' my gosh, I think the president could get through this."
Flurry of Activities for the President
Clinton also spoke by telephone for about 25 minutes with French President Jacques Chirac, according to P.J. Crowley, a White House spokesman. Chirac, who initiated the call, talked to the president about Iraq, Kosovo, Russia and various European security issues, Crowley said.
Clinton stopped by a reception for Jewish leaders in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House, marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Middle East peace accord between Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister of Israel, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The president also met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a session that Crowley described as a follow-up to a similar meeting in which Clinton participated Saturday. Crowley said the meeting touched on a number of national security issues, including terrorism, but did not involve a crisis or emergency.
The president is speaking today to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, in what aides are calling a major address on the global economy. He also will attend a fund-raising lunch, dinner and a performance of the "Lion King" on Broadway.
Later in the week, he is scheduled to meet at the White House with President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic. He will then travel to Cincinnati for a policy address and to Boston for another fund-raiser.
Starr Faulted for Graphic Report
On the Sunday airwaves, Clinton's lawyers were hard-pressed to explain why the president had not committed perjury.
In the end, as White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff contended repeatedly, there was nothing in his client's conduct to form the basis for impeachment proceedings--even if, as Clinton has admitted, he had misled the American people.
Starr also came under fire Sunday, with Clinton defenders characterizing his report as unnecessarily graphic in its depiction of sexual encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said of Starr on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press": "He's on trial as much as the president is on trial. This report that he's put out, with all of these lurid details, shocking some, embarrassing all--I mean, it's a signal about where he's coming from, who he is."
Waters, head of the strongly pro-Clinton Congressional Black Caucus, added: "This word sex has been mentioned 548 times in this report. What is he up to? Who is casting the stones here? What is this all about?"
Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), like Waters a member of the House Judiciary Committee, responded: "This is not a question of sex. This is a question of whether you lied under oath. This is a question of whether you lied in a court proceeding. This is a question of whether you undermined the laws of this nation, committed a federal crime."
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has repeatedly called for Clinton's resignation, also jumped to Starr's defense.
"If he hadn't put the details in the report, they would have claimed there was no evidence to substantiate the grounds of impeachment," DeLay said on "Meet the Press." He urged Clinton to "fire his lawyers . . . confess to the American people and accept the consequences, wherever they may lead."
On the same program, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) talked openly about the potential for some form of punishment short of impeachment.
"I think there are a lot of options here," he said. "One is to do nothing, which is unacceptable. The other is some type of rebuke of the president, a public rebuke by the body, and I think that becomes a very real option. The other, of course, is proceeding ahead with impeachment proceedings."
Another top House Democrat, Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, also hinted that a milder form of punishment might be acceptable.
"I think there are many other ways beyond impeachment that the Congress can express its dissatisfaction, its unhappiness with the president's conduct," he said.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.
Times on the Web
* Complete text of the Starr report and White House rebuttals can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/scandal