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On the Hill, Searching for 'the Right Choice'

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page A19

One week into a constitutional process that could lead to the removal of President Clinton from office, neither Republicans nor Democrats can see the endgame.

Democratic defenders of Clinton – inside and outside the White House – despair that they can envision no clear way out for the president, although they cling to the hope that he can escape with a stiff censure. Republicans, even as they move toward launching a formal impeachment inquiry, wonder whether the public will support a decision to remove the president, if that is the outcome of the impeachment process.

But there is agreement that the outcome of what could be a months-long process will be shaped by several intervening events – in addition to evidence contained in the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

The most important will include the expected vote in the House in early October over whether to proceed with a formal impeachment inquiry; the outcome of the midterm elections in November; and the strength of the case developed against the president before the House Judiciary Committee during any impeachment inquiry – along with the public's judgment about the fairness by which the House reaches its decisions.

The phrase "uncharted waters" has become the cliche of the week to describe the situation, but the combination of confusion, uncertainty and seriousness that surrounds the process was underscored by a Republican House member last week. He recalled advice an elderly constituent gave him earlier in his career. "If you wait long enough, the right choice becomes obvious," he said he was told. "In this case, that is absolutely, positively the sage advice."

Right now, the right choice is not obvious.

One factor that will color the process began to play out last week: the partisanship that surrounded the procedural wrangling over whether to release the videotape of Clinton's Aug. 17 testimony to the grand jury, along with 2,800 pages of additional material developed by Starr's investigation.

House Republicans recognize how important some semblance of bipartisanship will be in shaping public opinion, and there were growing fears of a possible backlash against the party, both for appearing too eager to release material damaging to the president and for decisions made without support from the Democrats.

But GOP pollster Robert Teeter, who acknowledged reservations about the quick release of the material, said he doubted the initial fight in the Judiciary Committee would have a lasting effect.

Teeter said he also believed that Democrats' resistance to the release of the documents had more to do with concerns about their own fortunes as a party than about defending Clinton. "They were fighting something that they thought might make this campaign worse for them," he said.

Given the makeup of the Judiciary Committee, where the rival party members are more liberal or more conservative than their respective colleagues in the House as a whole, continued partisan warfare seems assured. But a more significant indicator of partisanship, at least in these early stages, will come when the House decides whether to launch a formal impeachment investigation.

If that vote splits along party lines, the process could be called into question. But that appears unlikely. Democrats say it may be difficult, a few weeks before the elections, for their House members, particularly those in tough races, to justify a vote against moving the process forward, now that about half the country sees that as an appropriate step.

The elections could bring bigger problems for Clinton. Republicans briefed last week say party leaders believe they can win an additional 15 to 18 seats in the House and could equal or come close to having a 60-seat majority – enough to shut off filibusters – in the Senate. Republicans expect to have enough money to fully fund candidates in 90 House races, many more than originally envisioned.

Democrats say their look at several competitive, Democratic-held districts shows no significant erosion yet. One veteran strategist put it this way: "Our instinct is it's hurting, but there no statistical evidence that the bottom has fallen out." But virtually no Democrat sounds anything but gloomy about the elections.

Democrats also have begun to worry about the consequences of bigger-than-expected losses in November. They fear that could make it impossible to win back the House in 2000, which was part of the party's longer-term strategy earlier in the year. That, in turn, said a Democrat with close ties to the White House and to key constituencies in the party, has raised alarms about the presidential race in 2000, and could create pressure on the president to resign.

The implications for 2000, he said, "are just starting to dawn" on Democratic constituencies. They feel impeachment is not justified, but "they are looking at their own self-interest," he said. "They're saying this is making it more difficult for us to hold the White House, so why doesn't he resign and get out of the way and let [Vice President] Gore be in."

This Democratic strategist sketched a scenario in which party leaders might seek the president's resignation. "If there is a real shellacking of the Democrats in the Congress and then the party leaders, however defined, reconnoiter after that and say this is really bad, it puts Clinton in a terrible situation," he said. "He may find himself facing a collective group of Democratic leadership saying, 'We love you but the results are in. They are terrible and could hurt us in 2000.' "

If the losses are less than expected, however, Democrats might conclude the worst is over. In that case, the process would move forward in the House but with Democrats inclined to push harder for censure and a speedy resolution.

Now, the polls don't matter – at least to the Republicans. Eventually, they will, particularly as the process moves toward a conclusion.

The administration's strategy is to do what it can to prevent the favorable poll numbers from eroding. "It's public opinion that's going to lead the members there, not us," a White House official said. "Our strategy has got to be to do everything to make sure that public opinion keeps going that direction."

There are signs of public opinion in transition. A Newsweek poll released yesterday showed a shift in public attitudes on whether Clinton should consider resigning, whether he should be censured and whether Congress should launch an impeachment inquiry.

On whether Clinton should consider resigning, the poll found that 46 percent said yes, while 50 percent said no. In the week after Clinton's grand jury testimony, 31 percent said yes and 65 percent said no.

Support for launching an impeachment inquiry has risen from 24 percent to 41 percent in the past month, while support for a censure or reprimand has risen from 45 percent to 64 percent.

Still, Clinton's job approval rating stood at 58 percent, according to the poll.

Many congressional Republicans believe that as the process moves forward, public resistance to impeachment could soften. "They think an impeachment would be bad for the country," Teeter said. "It has nothing to do with concern for Clinton."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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