President Clinton and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr are poised to engage in either a historic confrontation or a legal compromise this week, as lawyers for the two men prepare to negotiate the pres-i-dent's likely testimony before a federal grand jury, officials said.
The subpoena served on Clinton a couple of weeks ago had an appearance date of early this week, according to officials familiar with the proceedings, creating a sense of imminence in Starr's six-month investigation into whether Clinton engaged in a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and pressured her to lie about it.White House officials continued to indicate that Clinton was willing to provide testimony to the federal grand jury hearing the case but that he would staunchly refuse to appear in person before the panel at the U.S. District Court. Rather, aides said, he would insist on answering questions in writing or providing videotaped testimony from the White House that could be aired to the grand jurors.
Publicly, White House officials refused even to confirm the existence of a subpoena, beyond Friday's statements from press secretary Michael McCurry that Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, would negotiate with Starr.
"Nothing has changed," said Jim Kennedy, a White House spokesman on legal issues.
Privately, however, there was a sense of anxiety as officials and lawyers came to the realization that Clinton could be severely damaged politically by exercising all his legal rights and fighting the subpoena to the Supreme Court.
Despite telling reporters in January that "I'd like for you to have more rather than less, sooner rather than later," Clinton has provided few details on his relationship with Lewinsky, and now answers virtually all questions on the case with a blanket denial or silence.
By Sunday, the subpoena had triggered a series of divisive political and legal debates around Washington, the most pointed of them being whether a president can be compelled to testify in a criminal trial or before a grand jury.
There is no clear, legal precedent for the subpoena, and legal scholars appeared split. In 1973, federal prosecutors subpoenaed President Nixon's White House tapes but not his personal testimony. When Nixon refused to turn the tapes over, the prosecutors won a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1974, and Nixon resigned about a month later.
"It's an open question," said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University Law Center professor. "The Constitution provides for a separation of powers, and there is a good argument that the president cannot be forced to appear before the judicial branch.
"At least the question is, `What can you do if he refuses?' " Rothstein said. "Would you imprison the president? That would be a constitutional crisis. This is not crystal clear and it's never been tested. All the testimony in the past has been voluntary."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said if Clinton refuses to provide testimony, the House may then seek his impeachment.
"The fact that he would ignore and violate a subpoena would certainly be grounds to file articles of impeachment," said Hatch, appearing Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
"If Kenneth Starr does have additional information, I think it could snowball into a real impeachment problem for the president. I personally hope that doesn't happen. I hope that none of this is true. I hope the president can get through this."
Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, said Sunday that Starr would agree to allow Clinton to videotape testimony from the White House. Clinton has provided videotaped testimony in Whitewater-related cases in which he has not been presumed to be the target of the investigation. Clinton also gave a deposition to Paula Jones' lawyers at his attorney's office in January.
Other presidents and prosecutors have reached various arrangements that have precluded any court or grand jury appearance and sidestepped the need for a subpoena. President Reagan gave written answers in the Iran-Conta investigation.
"I don't think that it's in the interest of either the special prosecutor or the president to have a constitutional crisis here that forces this decision to the Supreme Court," said Panetta, speaking on ABC's "This Week."
"I don't see any reason, very frankly, why both parties cannot agree on a format here that allows the president to present his testimony, provides certain limitations, but at the same time goes to the heart of the issue that's under investigation."