Features

Jail to the chief?

National | Some Republicans think Clinton should get a prison term-but after his presidential term

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

in Washington - Republicans may not be able to kick Bill Clinton out of the White House, but some believe in two years' time the president could be sent to the big house. Even if the House musters the 218 votes needed to pass articles of impeachment, no one believes that the Senate has the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president from office. Faced with that political reality, some in the GOP are looking for a way to avoid a tough impeachment vote without appearing soft on presidential perjury. Sen. Arlen Specter thinks he has the answer. The moderate Pennsylvania Republican has been talking up a plan that would keep the impeachment hot potato out of the Senate, yet maintain the possibility that Mr. Clinton receives more than a slap on the wrist. If anything is slapped on his wrists, the senator is suggesting, it could be handcuffs. Mr. Specter proposes a sense-of-the-Senate resolution or some other device that allows Congress to make clear that the president should be tried as a criminal once he leaves office. Congress would immediately drop its impeachment proceedings and the president would serve out his final two years in office. But, this theory holds, he would serve those two years awaiting possible prosecution. "The main issue here is holding President Clinton accountable, making sure he doesn't get away with this behavior that's alleged in the Starr report," says a Specter aide. "Unfortunately, the only tool available to Congress while the president is in office is the blunt instrument of impeachment." Many legal experts-including Ken Starr himself-believe that a sitting president cannot be indicted, since the Constitution provides impeachment as the only legal recourse against the chief executive. Once he becomes a private citizen, however, Mr. Clinton could be indicted and prosecuted using the evidence already gathered by the independent counsel. While many conservatives would savor the thought of a lame-duck president marking time before going to prison, they will likely oppose any effort to drop impeachment proceedings. They would argue that if the president has committed impeachable offenses, then the House has an obligation to impeach and make its case to the Senate, regardless of the prevailing political winds in the upper chamber. Following Mr. Specter's plan would be a particularly bitter pill for members of the House Judiciary Committee, who have taken a beating politically yet steadfastly maintained that they have a constitutional obligation to pursue the truth, no matter how unpopular. Reversing course now would make them seem even more politically motivated in the minds of many voters, yet erode their support among conservatives, who would view the move as a capitulation to the opinion polls. Besides, Senate resolutions are all but meaningless gestures, usually reserved for such trivial matters as commemorating National Pecan Day or honoring the birthdays of important figures back in the home state. So, for now at least, the committee's impeachment inquiry marches on. On Dec. 1, the committee heard from Barbara Battalino, a former VA hospital psychiatrist, and one of 500 persons charged with federal perjury offenses by the Justice Department in the last five years. She testified that her life was ruined in April when she was convicted of lying under oath regarding an improper relationship with a patient. Wearing an electronic monitoring device on her ankle-a requirement of her house arrest-Ms. Battalino told the committee, "I am condemned to a life sentence. I have lost my professional standing, my life as it had been, and my cherished privacy-these consequences are irrevocable. "I merit punishment for breaking a fundamental law of God and society. Making false and/or misleading statements, especially under oath and regardless of the subject matter, is wrong for me and anyone who accepts ... the rule of law upon which this great land of ours is founded and persists." Ms. Battalino hopes that the president-whether now or in the future-is held to the same standard that cost her freedom and her career. "Because a president is not a king, he or she must abide by the same laws as the rest of us," she told the committee. "If liberty and justice for all does not reign, we-like great civilizations before us-will surely perish from the face of the earth."

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