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Va. Lawmaker Playing Key Role in Hill Drama

Boucher,TWP Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) talks with committee staffers during a break in the Judiciary Committee's debate over articles of impeachment. (The Post)

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  • By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A25

    Rep. Rick Boucher, of Virginia, a policy wonk more at home on the trails of his native Appalachia than in the trenches of bitter partisan battle, became point man yesterday as Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee tried to get the panel to vote to censure President Clinton rather than to impeach him.

    The 52-year-old Democrat, until now a low-profile member of the committee, has emerged as a key player in the presidential impeachment debate. As lead author of the Democratic censure alternative, he argued unsuccessfully for its passage – and will try to convince GOP moderates to support the resolution on the House floor later this week.

    "While the president's conduct was reprehensible, it did not threaten the nation," Boucher said yesterday. Clinton "deserves the admonishment and the censure and the rebuke of the Congress. And in adopting this resolution of censure, we will give voice to the widely held public view that the president should not be removed from office."

    For Boucher, an owlish 16-year incumbent, the impeachment crisis has been an unwelcome intrusion on his legislative passion – telecommunications policy. But the efforts of the Southwest Virginia lawmaker have won respect and praise from Democratic colleagues.

    Boucher has become "the go-to guy," said Julian Epstein, the Democrats' chief counsel to the Judiciary Committee.

    White House counsel Greg Craig also lauded Boucher: "To have someone who's so clearly trying to reach consensus elevates the entire process."

    Boucher has known Clinton since both worked for George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid against incumbent Richard M. Nixon. Boucher, fresh from the University of Virginia law school, was an advance man for the campaign; young Bill Clinton was the state coordinator in Texas.

    Clinton "made an impression on me as someone who was very smart, who clearly understood the politics of the state and was totally committed to winning the election," Boucher said in a recent interview. "I'm dismayed by his conduct . . . but I still like him and respect him."

    Boucher's mountainous district – which borders Tennessee and Kentucky and is known as Virginia's "Fighting 9th" because of its raucous politics – gave 46 percent of its vote to Clinton in 1996. Boucher said he believes the views of his rural constituents reflect those of the country as a whole.

    "I don't think my [district] is very different from the rest of the nation," he said. "Most people don't want the president to resign or be impeached. They do, however, want him to be censured for this. And I want him censured, too."

    A fourth-generation elected official from Abingdon, Boucher grew up in a bipartisan household with two lawyers for parents. His mother was the county Democratic chairwoman; his father was the elected Republican prosecutor.

    He was taught, he said, "that partisan politics were not important. Issues are."

    Boucher "can hardly wait" to get back to issues he considers more important, such as satellite broadcasting rights. "I've got a whole folder of things I want to do," he said. "This [impeachment defense] clearly was not part of the job I signed up for."

    Since September, when he was tapped by Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the party's ranking member on the panel, Boucher has assisted with Clinton's congressional defense.

    Boucher, Democrats say, has the political standing in a socially right-of-center Southern district that gives him credibility with Republicans and makes him uniquely suited to argue the centrist case to House fence-straddlers.

    Known in the House as a telecommunications and Internet expert and to voters in his district for delivering on constituent services, he is no "ego freak," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a committee member and friend. "In this case, the spotlight found him."

    The onetime Wall Street lawyer, a bachelor, is considered precise and disarmingly bland. At home, he is known as a populist liberal on economic issues and a conservative on such social issues as gun control and trade limits. He was reelected in November to his ninth term, with 60 percent of the vote, despite his Republican opponent's well-financed television campaign to link him with Clinton.

    "I think my constituents are comfortable with what I'm doing," Boucher said, when asked if he fears any political backlash at home. "They trust me to make the right decision."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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