WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said on Thursday that his wife's probable Senate campaign in New York played "absolutely" no role in his decision to offer clemency to 16 Puerto Rican militants. And he said that Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose exploratory candidacy has been engulfed in controversy over the clemency, had known nothing about the offer.
Breaking his silence on the matter since his office issued a statement a month ago outlining the clemency plan, the President told reporters here that he had made the offer because the militants were given excessive sentences based on their "guilt by association" with a terrorist organization that killed six people and wounded scores of others during the 1970's and 80's. He said that those to whom he made the conditional offer had not been convicted of doing bodily harm to anyone.
Of the clemency offer, the President said that Mrs. Clinton "didn't know anything about it." He added: "I have not discussed other clemency issues with her, and I didn't think I should discuss this one." He has received 3,042 clemency requests since he took office in 1993 and has granted 3.
He portrayed his action as almost routine. "I got the memo from Ruff," the President said of his former counsel, Charles F. C. Ruff. "I didn't know it was coming. It came with all the other papers I get every day and every week, and I dealt with it the way I deal with everything."
Nonetheless, the House on Thursday passed a resolution with overwhelming Democratic support that condemned the President's offer. The debate featured a chorus of voices that asserted Clinton was trying to help his wife curry favor with New York's 1.3 million Puerto Ricans. The vote was 311 to 41, with 93 Democrats voting against Clinton.
The Senate is to vote on a similar resolution on Monday.
The resolutions are merely symbolic, because clemency is the sole prerogative of the President. But they help Congressional Republicans keep alive a matter that they perceive as a political blunder by the President and a public relations disaster for the First Lady, who tried to distance herself from it by calling on her husband Saturday to withdraw it. Two Senate committees have scheduled hearings on the issue next week and a House committee has issued a subpoena for records of the decision-making process.
His responses today, at an impromptu news conference on the lawn outside the Oval Office before his departure on a 10-day trip to New Zealand, did little to illuminate the clemency offer and the many questions it has raised about how much he may use national policy to influence his wife's political standing in New York.
The President's decision dogged Mrs. Clinton again today as she visited New York neighborhoods, with reporters asking what she knew about the offer and about the feathers she ruffled among Puerto Ricans by asking the President to rescind it.
"There will be times when I disagree with my friends and my husband and his Administration," she said outside a school in Queens. "But the President has been so good for our country and so good for New York, and I support the vast number of good programs and progress that he and his Administration have stood for."
She added, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find two active people who agree 100 percent of the time."
When she was asked if she was dissatisfied, now that 14 of the prisoners have accepted the clemency offer, she said: "I'm going to stand by my statement on Saturday. I said then that the President's clemency offer should have been revoked. I believe that. But you know, you don't get everything that you advocate or believe or hope for in life, and I've stated my position and I think that's where I'll let it stand."
Mrs. Clinton will have a chance to try to pave over the damage next week, when she is scheduled to appear before the Hispanic Caucus Institute at its annual Washington gala.
Mrs. Clinton told reporters in New York on Wednesday that when she told the President on Saturday that she was going to ask him to withdraw the offer, he did not tell her that he was setting a deadline of Sept. 10 for the prisoners to accept. Had she known this, her political supporters suggest, she might not have inserted herself into the matter at all.
The President confirmed on Thursday that he did not tell his wife of the deadline, but he did not explain why.