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Clinton's Choice is Cutler For White House Counsel

By Ruth Marcus and Dan Balz
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

President Clinton is trying to persuade Lloyd N. Cutler to serve as White House counsel, turning to a well-known Washington figure who held the same job in the Carter administration to help quiet the uproar over White House ethics.

Administration officials said over the weekend that they were searching for a "Lloyd Cutler" type, and Monday tried to make that wish become reality. Sources said late Monday that Cutler and White House officials were trying to work out the terms of his appointment.

If they can reach agreement, a formal announcement could be made as early as Tuesday. But even if Cutler, 76, decides not to join the administration, the effort to recruit him underscores the severity of the problems White House officials have created for themselves in their handling of the Whitewater affair.

Among the issues being discussed was Cutler's insistence that he be regarded as counsel to the Office of the Presidency and not Clinton's personal attorney.

If the negotiations are successful, Cutler would replace Bernard Nussbaum, who submitted his resignation Saturday after an ill-starred tenure in which he was repeatedly criticized inside and outside the White House for lacking the kind of political judgment required of a lawyer in the counsel's post.

Cutler is one of the best-known members of the Washington legal community and a veteran of dealings with Congress and the press.

Cutler's arrival would mark the second time that Clinton has turned to a prominent Washington insider to help bail him out of trouble. Last spring, reeling over a series of staff problems and legislative difficulties, Clinton recruited David Gergen, a veteran of three Republican White Houses, as a senior adviser.

Clinton, at a news conference Monday, said he wanted "someone of unquestioned integrity and a lot of experience in dealing with the kinds of issues that have to come into the White House" and "someone who will inspire confidence in me and in you, the press, and most importantly, in the American people, that we are going the extra mile to deal with all matters in the appropriate way."

Fifteen years ago, Cutler came to the aid of another Democratic administration, when President Carter tapped him to replace Atlanta lawyer Robert J. Lipschutz, who was criticized for being over his head in the delicate job of White House counsel.

"We were in the process of trying to strengthen our staff and Lloyd brought his connections with the Hill and the Washington establishment," said Jody Powell, who was Carter's press secretary. "He was a real help."

Like Clinton and his wife Hillary, Cutler is a graduate of Yale Law School. But in an administration of Baby Boomers and Twentysomethings, Cutler would be a grandfatherly figure. He was admitted to the bar six years before Clinton was born.

Over the years, Cutler has been described as "the ultimate Washington lawyer" and a "Washington gray eminence," the kind of man outsider Ross Perot turned to in 1992 to give him advice about government when he was beginning to think about running for president.

He has been an enormously successful lawyer in the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (where he is now "of counsel") and when he was practicing full time had a long list of blue-chip corporate clients, whom he helped guide through the legislative and regulatory shoals of Washington.

But Cutler also developed a sizable reputation for promoting liberal causes, for pro bono legal work and for developing an interest and expertise in governmental reform and ethics issues.

Most recently, he was the lead attorney who argued the case against the constitutionality of the Washington state term limits statute and won the first round of the battle when a federal district court judge in Seattle ruled in his favor last month in a battle that is expected eventually to end up in the Supreme Court.

In recent years he has been a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of major newspapers. One of those articles, written in 1987, caused an uproar in liberal circles when he came to the defense of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court and he was one of Bork's strongest advocates during the fight that killed the nomination.

Last year he promoted the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general, having been her mentor from their days in the Carter administration. Cutler appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to defend her even as the White House was preparing to withdraw her nomination.