While a federal judge in the investigation of President Clinton weighed arguments over the reach of executive privilege, new polls showed Saturday that the grand jury proceedings have already taken a toll on public faith in his personal morals.
The credibility of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey is in serious doubt, those same polls indicated, but a new figure emerged Saturday to corroborate one heavily disputed aspect of her story.House Republicans also reported that they secured deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsey's cooperation in their campaign fund-raising inquiry. And they questioned why Lindsey and fellow Clinton aide Sidney Blu-men-thal were still claiming cover of "executive privilege" in refusing to answer Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr's questions about strategy discussions with Clinton.
Setting the stage for a legal battle that could reach the Supreme Court, U.S. District Judge Norma Hollaway Johnson heard arguments Friday from attorneys on both sides - from the White House and Starr's prosecutors - about whether Blumenthal and Lindsey can refuse to answer certain questions on grounds they are off limits because of executive privilege - the right of a president to keep some deliberations secret.
However, it remained unclear whether Clinton formally submitted paperwork invoking the privilege and White House spokesman Joe Lockhart refused to comment.
"It's a striking contrast in similar situations," said Barbara Comstock, chief investigative counsel for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. She said White House counsel Lanny Breuer notified her last week that Lindsey, who last fall cited concerns over executive privilege, was now ready to drop those concerns and tell the committee - in a deposition scheduled for April 6 - about discussions with Clinton regarding controversial Democratic contributor James Riady.
Lindsey's change of heart "raises the logical question of why the White House is still raising (executive privilege) elsewhere," Comstock said Saturday.
Despite the controversies, the president's job approval rating holds strong, ranging between 59 percent and 67 percent in three new public opinion surveys released this weekend.
But a survey conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas for U.S. News showed that just 36 percent of Americans approve of him as a person and 50 percent disapprove. His approval as a person is down 6 percentage points from last December, before detailed allegations were aired about alleged sexual relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and what Willey says was an unwanted sexual contact with her just outside the Oval Office.
But among Democratic women, Clinton suffered a much steeper decline of 19 percentage points.
Overall, only 35 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. News poll said Clinton meets the standards of honesty and integrity they expect in a president.
A Newsweek poll released Saturday found that 43 percent of those surveyed said should leave office if Willey's accusations are true and Clinton lied about it under oath. But 31 percent said he should be able to stay in office if he apologizes to the American people and 18 percent volunteered that no apology would be necessary.
A CNN/Time poll, which was conducted three days after Wil-ley's nationally televised charges last Sunday, indicated that half of Americans (52 percent) believe Clinton has engaged in a "pattern of sexual misconduct." Respondents were split over whether to believe Willey and nearly half (48 percent) said she went public with her story for monetary gain.
One disputed aspect of Willey's story - that she confided details of the 1993 alleged encounter with Clinton to her friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, right after it happened - was corroborated Saturday by Richmond, Va., television producer Bill Poveromo.
In an affidavit that Clinton's lawyers have used to undercut Willey's credibility, Steele swore that Willey never mentioned the incident when it happened and later asked Steele to lie and say that she was told in 1993 about Clinton's alleged unwanted pass.
Poveromo, who works for WWBT-TV, told The Associated Press that Steele, his friend of several years, confided in him over dinner at her home last April that "the president had groped Kathy (Willey) and that Julie did know about it right after it happened."
Steele later changed her story in the affidavit and in press reports "because she freaked and panicked," Poveromo said.
Nancy Luque, Steele's attorney, said: "She absolutely stands by her affidavit. She did not tell Poveromo that the Clinton-Willey encounter occurred because she didn't ever believe that it had."
Newsweek's March 19-20 telephone survey of 750 adults had a 4-percentage point margin of error. The CNN/Time poll, conducted March 18-19 among 1,032 adult Americans claims a 3-point sampling error. Pollsters for U.S. News questioned 1,005 registered voters March 17-19 and also claimed a margin of error of 3 percentage points.