WASHINGTON — House Republicans and a coalition of Vietnam War veterans lambasted President Clinton on Wednesday for seeming to claim active-duty military status as a reason for putting off a pending sexual-harassment lawsuit, a suggestion that they called "a slap in the face to the millions of men and women" in the armed forces.
Clinton's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, asked the Supreme Court last week to rule the president immune while in office from responding to lawsuits, including the harassment claim filed by Paula Corbin Jones.
By law, criminal defendants, bankrupted persons and active members of the armed forces can be freed temporarily from responding to civil suits, he argued. He said the 1940 Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act freed service personnel from responding immediately to damage suits against them.
"President Clinton here thus seeks relief similar to that which he may be entitled as commander in chief of the armed forces and which is routinely available to service members under his command," Bennett told the justices.
In a letter to the president, Republican congressmen demanded that he retract the "ignoble suggestion" that he is a member of the armed forces.
"Under the Constitution, you are the civilian commander in chief. . . . You are not a person in the military service, nor have you ever been," wrote Reps. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who chairs the House subcommittee on military personnel.
In an interview, Stump called the legal argument a gaffe that revives two allegations that have plagued Clinton: "draft-dodging" and sexual harassment.
"It's incredibly stupid that they have brought this argument up," Stump said. More than 160 Republicans signed the letter asking Clinton to retract the claim that he is part of the armed forces.
A White House official, referring reporters to Bennett for comment, said the legal statement had been "blown out of proportion."
Bennett's office issued a statement calling it nothing more than "a partisan effort to distort an argument" in hopes of embarrassing the president.
However, Bennett's statement repeated the argument that the Soldiers' and Sailors' Relief Act "might also extend to presidents as commander in chief, although we have not relied on it in this case."
Legal experts agreed that the 1940 law was quite precise in saying that it applied only to "persons in the military service of the United States" who are "on active duty."
"There is no question the presidency is a civilian office. He is certainly not considered a member of the armed forces," said Washington attorney Eugene Fidell, an expert on military law.
However, he said, Bennett's controversial reference "is really a minor point made in passing. It was perhaps an inartful choice of words, but they were trying to make the point there is nothing extraordinary about a stay of litigation."
Veterans leaders called the legal reference an outrage. "We were just blown away with that," said J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition, who first called attention to the court appeal. "And frankly, we would like to blow [Clinton] away politically for doing it."