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Clinton Lawyers Prepare to Fight Impeachment Threat

By Peter Baker
and Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post

In a last-minute effort to head off impeachment, the White House will call more than a dozen witnesses before the House Judiciary Committee beginning Tuesday to argue that President Clinton's offenses do not compare to Watergate and do not warrant his removal from office.

The president's lawyers will neither introduce new exculpatory evidence in their two-day defense nor question any of the players in the scandal, including Monica S. Lewinsky herself, even though they had previously complained that they never had a chance to cross-examine the grand jury witnesses whose testimony provided the basis for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress.

Instead, the White House recruited 14 prominent former prosecutors, constitutional experts and Watergate veterans to "deconstruct the allegations," as one aide put it. Rather than challenge the facts collected by Starr, they plan to challenge his interpretation of them. And while some witnesses plan to criticize Starr's investigation, the White House abandoned plans to present witnesses devoted to accusing him of "prosecutorial misconduct."

The two-day defense case beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday will open the final stage in the Judiciary Committee's historic inquiry as Clinton aides scramble to avoid only the second impeachment of a president. With the panel scheduled to begin voting perhaps 24 hours after the Clinton team wraps up Wednesday, committee Republicans met Monday to prepare three or four proposed articles of impeachment.

The real audience for the Clinton lawyers, however, will not be a committee that appears already to have made up its collective mind to approve impeachment along party lines, or even a general public that already has made its opposition to removing Clinton from office clear in opinion polls. The targets of the presidential entreaties will be about two dozen moderate House Republicans who will be critical to any vote on the floor next week.

Out of camera range, White House allies and some of those key members continued discussions about a possible alternative punishment that would involve a congressional censure of the president combined with some sort of voluntary fine by Clinton. One congressional source said presidential aides had expressed a willingness to accept a $300,000 penalty, though the White House denied shopping any censure or fine proposals.

Cognizant of the sentiments of those Republican moderates who have groused about what they see as a defiant defense strategy, the White House Monday reiterated Clinton's contrition for having misled the nation about his affair with Lewinsky and aides held open the possibility that he might speak out again on the subject in the coming days.

"The president is second to none in recognizing what was wrong in his behavior and apologizing to those who he has affected and hurt," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "There has been some speculation that that is no longer the case, but I can tell you with great certainty that it is, that he is keenly aware of what he has done wrong."

But preparing for the worst, the White House also laid the groundwork for a possible constitutional challenge to an impeachment vote.