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President's Supporters on Hill Offering Mostly Tepid Statements – If Any

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 1998; Page A11

Even President Clinton's staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill have been reluctant to defend Clinton against sex and perjury allegations involving a former White House intern, in part because they believe he has articulated a weak and porous defense.

In public, Democratic elected officials are declaring -- when they say anything at all -- that the allegations against Clinton are "serious matters" that should not be prejudged and require careful evaluation.

In private, some are almost fatalistic in their anticipation of disaster. "We've been hearing this kind of thing for too long," said one Clinton loyalist. Many said they will not stick their neck out for a president whose own response has been half-hearted and inarticulate.

"Regardless of whether you like the president or not, nobody should take any pleasure of this situation," Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said in a typically tepid statement issued to local media. Torricelli won election in 1996 by 10 points on a ticket headed by Clinton who won New Jersey by a remarkable 18 points.

In similar language, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who may run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, told a gathering in New Hampshire: "Whether you like President Clinton or not, we need to be respectful that he deserves to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise."

When Kerrey was reminded that two years ago he had described Clinton as an "unusually good liar," he replied, "I neither believe him nor don't believe him. But these are serious, serious charges," according to an account in the Omaha World-Herald.

The careful Democratic distancing from the first Democratic president to win a second term since Franklin D. Roosevelt did so in 1936 stands in sharp contrast to the initial GOP response during Watergate, the scandal that ultimately toppled President Richard M. Nixon.

Republican congressional leaders backed up Nixon for a full year despite a steady flow of adverse evidence, the firing of top aides and damaging congressional hearings. Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott (Pa.) and House GOP leader John J. Rhodes (Ariz.) held firm behind Nixon from May 1973, when Nixon was first accused of engineering the break-in, to May 1974, when incriminating transcripts of Oval Office conversations were released.

But in Clinton's case, from the first day news stories alleging a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky broke, Democratic House and Senate leaders set out to protect themselves more than to defend their president.

"These are serious allegations which the president has denied, and which deserve an investigation that should be conducted quickly and fairly," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) declared. "The president has said these allegations are not true," House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. "My view is that no one should draw any conclusions in this matter until the investigation is allowed to determine the facts."

Clinton's relations with Gephardt and the liberal wing of his own party had already been seriously frayed over a series of bitter policy fights over trade, budget and welfare proposals. The tensions have been intensified by Gephardt's interest in challenging Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.

But even several of Clinton's most consistent supporters on Capitol Hill, the leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, yesterday offered only lukewarm words of support for the president. Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.), a co-chairman of the group, said the "allegations are troubling and if proven true, pose a very serious threat to the president. But at this point, there is just too much that we don't know to really pass judgment."

Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), who is also a co-chair, said, "these are the most serious and potentially substantial charges leveled against this president. Enough facts are not in to ascertain what happened. . . . If he did do something as the allegations point to, I think the president is in serious trouble."

The third co-chair of the coalition, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), is more directly supportive of Clinton, but said yesterday that he, too, is torn by the allegations. Moran, who dined with the Clintons on Saturday night and whose daughter was often visited by Hillary Rodham Clinton while she was being treated for a brain tumor, said he is confident the president "is not going to be found guilty in the Paula Jones case." When constituents ask Moran about the Lewinsky charges, "I tell them that I just don't know. All I know is that he [Clinton] has been a damn good president for five years and we can be proud of the policy decisions he has made."

Despite their reservations about the scandal, the centrist New Democrat Coalition's leaders have been the leading proponents on Capitol Hill of Clinton's policy program, backing his budget proposals over Gephardt's objections and supporting his education initiatives despite misgivings in more liberal Democratic circles.

"We have a terrific relationship with the Clinton administration," Dooley said last year. "We are interested in being a partner with Clinton."

The lack of Democratic elected officials willing to put themselves on the line for Clinton has left him largely unprotected in the battle to influence the media. With few exceptions, Clinton has had to depend for his public defense on those who do not have to face the voters themselves: White House aides and political operatives, most prominently James Carville.

The privately voiced fears of a number of Democratic members of the House and Senate is that Clinton's weak defense signals an increased probability that some of the accusations will prove true.

"There is just too much of an ongoing pattern," said one House member who has cast key ballots in support of Clinton's legislative proposals. "To tell you the truth, I can't hardly help but take this as an insult," he said, in a remark repeated in various ways by two of his House colleagues.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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