By Dan Morgan and Guy Gugliotta
At the beginning of the week, the House Democratic leadership feared that more than a third of its members would vote for a Republican resolution calling for an open-ended impeachment inquiry against President Clinton.
But after three days of big meetings, small meetings and one-on-one encounters, the leadership broadened its own alternative proposal to make it more attractive to more of its members. The waverers began to come back.
By yesterday, conservative Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) saw "barely a dime's worth of difference" between the Democratic alternative and the resolution offered by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). He voted for both.
Others dozens by the Democrats' estimates liked the changes in the alternative enough to abandon the Hyde resolution altogether. In the end, only 31 Democrats voted for it, a huge victory for the Democratic leadership, which argued for days that the Hyde plan was a GOP witch hunt.
But the White House could take only cold comfort because there is little disagreement among Democrats over the need for an inquiry. Only five voted no on both the Hyde resolution and the Democrat alternative, agreeing with Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.), who made a "summary judgment" that Clinton's offenses did not rise to an impeachable standard.
And although the Democratic defectors and near-defectors cast their votes for a wide variety of reasons, none of those questioned thought Clinton's dalliance with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky deserved to be ignored.
"A lot of members go home and say 'nobody wants to know about this,' but that's not me," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a waverer who came back to the Democratic alternative after the leadership sweetened it. "I don't have a hanging district, but they want something done."
For many members, the difference in their vote was something special or something serendipitous. Kaptur voted against the Hyde resolution in part because she overheard Republican members guffawing at a Democrat who was going to vote with them. "I took great offense at their behavior," she said.
Several Democrats voted yes to the Hyde proposal largely because of Hyde himself, a figure of immense stature in the House.
"Henry made assurances to me personally that he was going to end this thing quickly," Peterson said.
Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) said, "I do worry about a witch hunt," but voted yes on both proposals, deciding to "trust" Hyde. Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-Tex.), another yes-yes voter, wrote a letter to Hyde "to ask him to expedite" the inquiry.
Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said he made his decision to oppose the GOP proposal only late Wednesday night after "excruciating" soul-searching, reading about past impeachments and talking with fellow New Jerseyan Peter Rodino, the retired Judiciary Committee Chairman who presided over the Watergate impeachment inquiry.
Pascrell concluded that the Republican proposal overstepped the impeachment framework intended by the Founding Fathers, so he voted no, even though he is in a tough reelection race against an opponent who is trying "to link me to the scandal" by attacking him for failing to criticize Clinton.
Moderate "New Democrat" Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.) wanted an inquiry but also thought that voting for the Hyde resolution would enhance his future as a truth-squadder. "The Democrats who have voted for this [Hyde resolution] can credibly criticize Chairman Hyde if he opens a never-ending inquisition," he said. Roemer voted for both proposals.
Five Democrats voted against the Democratic alternative and for the Hyde resolution. Reps. Paul McHale (D-Pa.) and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) have already called for Clinton's resignation.
Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Va.) said, "I really want to know more about [the] Whitewater" land deals, one of several scandals that could be dusted off and inserted into the impeachment inquiry.
But Hall, who like Goode is one of the House's most conservative Democrats, had no trouble voting for both of yesterday's proposals, even though he expected the House to vote articles of impeachment and expected to vote for them. "We can get closure on this, and the best arena is the U.S. Senate," Hall said. Clinton "ought to be begging us to get out of here."
Early this week, Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (Calif.) said, "I thought we were going to lose 75 members" to the Republican resolution. The leadership believed that the Hyde proposal, without a time limit and with the possibility that nearly a dozen scandals might eventually make their way into the inquiry, was unacceptable.
Selling the alternative, which limited the inquiry to Clinton's involvement with Lewinsky and imposed rigorous time limits to finish the impeachment process by Thanksgiving, was the job of the Democratic Judiciary Committee members and the party whip organization.
Deputy Democratic Whip Robert Menendez (N.J.) said the persuaders met with undecided Democrats in small groups and individually. Two two-hour plenary meetings of the caucus were also held.
"We went through the unfairness of the process with them," he said. "We appealed to them in terms of history and the national interest. We spoke to the partisan nature of the proceedings."
Gradually the alternative evolved, extending the deadline to the end of the year, allowing the possibility that more scandal information might be included. "I thought it got better as the days went on," Kaptur said. She wanted an investigation but favored censure or some punishment short of impeachment. The Democratic alternative offered that.
Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) was also on the verge of defecting until the leadership broadened the scope in the alternative. Like the vast majority of Democrats, he was worried that the GOP resolution allowed the Judiciary Committee to "dredge up anything" as a possible impeachable offense.
Roemer, seen as a key swing vote, said he never felt pressured during the past few days. "I even called the White House two or three times, and I gave the president a call to give him an opportunity to lobby me," he said. "He didn't return my call."
In the end, many of the waverers thought the two proposals were almost the same. "I just wish the parties had come together," Kaptur said. Peterson, a conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat who often scratches his head over the House's vicious partisanship, wondered at the latest failure.
"If the Republicans had been smart, they would have taken the Democrats' plan," he said. "Of course, if they had done that, the Democrats would have probably done something else."
Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) said, "The resolutions were closer in practical fact than the rhetoric implied, and I could have voted either way in the end." He decided to vote for both and started getting angry phone calls. "I've told them both votes were votes to go forward with an inquiry," he said.
But Hall suggested that there was no need to get upset yet. "This was just a pit-stop vote," he said. "It's like when you hit a triple and tag second base on your way around. Except we're still on first base on this one."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this story.
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