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What to do? Should it be the guillotine for the president, or a slap on the wrist -- impeachment or censure? His behavior has been abominable, but has not yet proven impeachable. Americans are adamantly, decisively -- 70 percent -- against the ultimate constitutional punishment for Bill Clinton. As his judges in Congress wait for the dreaded Starr report, they are of several minds.

To Democrats, the independent counsel's report is like a boulder perched on the top of a steep hill. If it is pushed, it could rumble down and destroy all Democrats in its path. They can only hope that Kenneth Starr will leak the lewdest items before it is delivered to Capitol Hill.

The details might be so revolting they could start a wave of popular revulsion that even the skillful surfer at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. could not ride. Their uncertainty keeps the Democrats notably quiet.

Capitol Hill is deserted, but the telephones are busy. The office of House Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who in the wake of the president's lamentable confession speech called for his resignation, was swamped with 500 calls a day last week. They were from boiling-mad voters, some of whom said they were Democrats and wanted Clinton's head.

Republican offices report a surge in constituent callers, fulminating even more against House Speaker Newt Gingrich's implicit warning to his flock to proceed with caution, and his warning to Starr that sex was not enough to set in motion the proceedings that are the gravest and rarest in the congressional repertory. Gingrich has blown hot and cold on moral turpitude. A while back he railed against Clinton's depravity and promised to mention it in every speech, then changed his mind and shut up until he was interviewed by Dan Balz of the Washington Post the other day.

Apparently the right wing was incensed at the thought he was seeking some sissy outcome, like censure, which is not cited in the Constitution but is increasingly talked of by both sides. Elliot Richardson, who was Richard Nixon's attorney general, finds censure "a rather appealing and plausible option. It would be a way out." The public might be pleased to have its point made about Clinton being a cad but a good president.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., set off some bells with a warning to Clinton that impeachment could happen. His staff complains that his words were misread, that "it was not an invitation to impeachment but a plea for temperateness."

As Clinton was cruising off Cape Cod, House members were entering uncharted seas. Only one president, Andrew Jackson, was ever censured. Starr's report could make some kind of action unavoidable. Censure beats impeachment for Democrats because it avoids expensive, disruptive hearings, although censure could also require some ghoulish theater, with Monica, Linda and other ladies of the ensemble, not to mention tapes and the dress. With censure, the Republicans could be spared an incumbent Al Gore in 2000.

Clinton has no one to blame but himself if Starr makes a special effort on the report. He obviously will put together an almost hour-by-hour report of recreational sex just off the Oval Office. Goaded by Clinton's ridiculous baiting in the "confession" speech, which was so bad it would in itself constitute grounds for censure, Starr is expected to redouble his exertions to prove perjury.

Clinton and his not-so-merry men are trying to read the omens from the provinces and their bearing on the November election. In Pennsylvania, four young Democratic candidates said they hoped the president would stay away. But in Massachusetts, Rep. Jim McGovern, said by Republicans to be "vulnerable," expects Clinton to be a big help.

Massachusetts is the most pro-Clinton state in the union. McGovern gives this vignette of where the state is, despite its dissatisfaction with the speech and the "angry, hurt voters" it left: At the Swansea Senior Citizens Center the morning after, McGovern proposed to talk of the speech. An old lady in the back row stood up and called out, "I don't give a damn about the speech. I want to know what he's going to do about my Medicare."

It's people like her who make it tricky for those who deal with a president who has behaved badly but not badly enough to warrant impeachment.

Universal Press Syndicate

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