WASHINGTONIt is surely the strangest debate ever to transfix the nation's leaders: Does oral sex constitute sexual relations, and did President Clinton lie when he testified that it did not?
The consensus on Capitol Hill is that it does and he did.
Monday the Democratic leaders of both houses, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, urged Clinton to stop making fine distinctions.
But despite increasing pressure from Congress, Clinton has no intention of saying that he perjured himself when he denied under oath that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, his advisers say.
To do so would be to declare that he broke the law. And an admission like that, some of his advisers say, would make impeachment proceedings more likely and might also expose him to criminal prosecution.
The result is a rather confusing, two-track White House strategy. Although Clinton was very precise in his word choice while denying sexual relations with Lewinsky under oath, he has chosen to speak very broadly over the last week in admitting wrongdoing. He is leaving it to his lawyers to be precise in denying, point by point, that his acts violated any laws.
As a result, some listeners thought they heard a contradiction between the president's admission of sin on Friday and his lawyers' denial of crime. ``I mean, trying to say that the president didn't lie under oath, but at the same time the president saying that he did is, to put it mildly, a bit of a conflict,' Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said Saturday on the CNN program ``Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields.'
Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said that because of questions from reporters Clinton's lawyers ``are getting wrapped around a legal argument about what constitutes perjury. Nonlawyers don't understand it, I don't understand it.'
But McCurry argued that the question of perjury is for lawyers and the legal system. For his part, the president is ``not hiding behind legalisms,' McCurry said.
``He had a horribly wrong relationship - that's now abundantly clear to everybody - and he didn't tell the truth about it,' McCurry said. ``I don't know how he could be more clear about it.'
Some Clinton political advisers say that his lawyers have persuasively argued internally that the accusations of perjury would not withstand legal scrutiny.
The White House approach all but guarantees a graphic, public debate over language and sex. Some of Clinton's allies are hoping that the country, and as a result the Congress, will have no stomach for it.
At the root of the perjury accusations is President Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct suit on Jan. 17. In it, he denied a ``sexual affair' or ``sexual relationship' with Lewinsky. According to the report by Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Clinton later supported his denials by saying that he and Lewinsky did not have sexual intercourse: a definition that prosecutors dismissed as absurdly narrow.
In his January deposition, Clinton also denied having ``sexual relations' with Lewinsky under a definition presented by the Jones lawyers.
As restricted by the judge in the case, the definition read: ``A person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.'
Lewinsky testified that she performed oral sex nine times on the president. In his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, Clinton was asked if oral sex fit the lawyers' definition. He testified that it did not.
According to Starr's report, Clinton said: ``If the deponent is the person who has oral sex performed on him, then the contact is with - not with anything on that list, but with the lips of another person. It seems to be self-evident that that's what it is.'
Clinton added, again according to the report, ``Let me remind you, sir, I read this carefully.' With great disdain, Starr dismissed Clinton's argument, and provided testimony from Lewinsky that Clinton did make contact with body parts other than her lips in order to arouse or gratify her.
``He answered the questions narrowly, but truthfully,' David Kendall, Clinton's private lawyer, said Sunday on the ABC program, ``This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.' He added, ``There is no perjury there. Was he trying to mislead the Paula Jones lawyers? Absolutely.' Moments later, Kendall said that Clinton's interpretation of the definition was ``good faith and correct.'