House Democrats Tread Carefully
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 10, 1998; Page A12
Nervous Democratic members of the House returning to Washington yesterday welcomed renewed expressions of contrition from President Clinton but were guarded in their comments on his political or legal prospects.
Expressions of all-out support were rare, but so were condemnations as most Democrats anxiously waited to learn the contents of the report that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered to Congress late yesterday. The president is looking to his fellow Democrats for protection as the House moves closer to possible impeachment proceedings.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) said, "People don't know what the hell is in the report. There's no panic, but I would say apprehension has set in."
One backbencher who gave voice to the anxiety many other Democrats expressed off the record was freshman Rep. Bob A. Weygand (R.I.). Although Clinton carried his district by a 2-to-1 margin over Robert J. Dole in 1996, Weygand said, "Over the past month, his support has dwindled tremendously. I have a lot of people who have been very supportive of him and until a month ago thought the money Starr was spending was outrageous, but now they feel very disappointed and let down.
"Unless Clinton expresses his remorse with a sincerity I haven't seen, I think marginal seats, even some safe ones, are going to be jeopardized. It just permeates everything," Wegand added, reflecting a growing concern of Democrats who think Clinton's problems will lead to significant losses for the party in the November elections.
A few members expressed staunch support for Clinton. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) denounced the public delivery of Starr's report to the Capitol yesterday as showmanship typical of what has been "a partisan operation from day one." Said Engel, whose Bronx district gave 85 percent of its votes to Clinton in 1996, "The prevailing sentiment is people are tired of it; they want to get on with the real pressing problems of the country. That's my feeling. We ought to just move on."
At the other extreme was Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), whose Gulf Coast constituents gave Clinton only 35 percent of their votes in 1996. Taylor said, "My people are angry and they think he should be removed from office. . . . The few supporters he'd had, he's pretty well lost." Taylor said he had written Gingrich, asking him "to move this to the front of the agenda," adding, "if there is perjury, I'll vote to impeach."
Clinton's fate was "the subject that is consuming everyone," according to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), as members had their first conversations back in the capital after the long summer recess. Like several of his colleagues, Cardin said the president's fate should not be a partisan issue. "Both parties understand that the reputation of Congress is at stake."
But most Democrats seemed disinclined to make any public comment yesterday. The Washington Post contacted the offices of four dozen House Democrats seeking comment on Clinton, but only a dozen returned the calls. Several members' press secretaries confided that their bosses had decided to duck all questions, knowing that they were likely to soon see the report.
Most who commented were cautious, saying in different ways that they had to see what was in Starr's report before reaching any conclusion. Rep. Peter Deutsch (Fla.), who was with Clinton in Florida yesterday, said, "Nothing that has been presented at this time, from any type of objective analysis, would lead the president to resign or be impeached." But he added, "If there's more [evidence of presidential wrongdoing in the Starr report], then all bets are off."
Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich (Ill.) said his constituents were still supportive of Clinton, as was he, provided there were no more damaging revelations. "I just hope there are going to be a lot of explanations" from the president, he added. If Starr's report did reveal more evidence of presidential perjury or obstruction of justice, Blagojevich said, "my concern is the support the president has won't sustain those hits... and [he] could come tumbling down."
The middle-ground view -- widely shared among Democrats who usually face competitive races -- was expressed by Reps. Thomas C. Sawyer (Ohio) and Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.).
Sawyer, whose district went 53 percent for Clinton, said "People are extremely reluctant to bring it up in public settings, but they come to you and express every possible opinion from "Just stop" to "He's gotta go." Sawyer said he was withholding judgment. "I've heard four minutes from the president, and now there are two vanloads of testimony. I have to look at the evidence."
Roemer, whose district Clinton lost by 3 points in 1996, said "Some of the Democrats are defending the president, some are distressed by the president's problems and some are very disturbed and demanding he do more than he has already done. People are taking it very seriously, but they are also serious about health care and Social Security and the roads. They want us to work on things important to the country but they're disturbed by the president's behavior and want us to get to the bottom of this."
Those who are on the Judiciary Committee are using their membership as a reason for reserving judgment. Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (Wis.), who said he expects to be named to that committee, said "In light of that, I'm going to wait until I see that report."
Rep. Steve R. Rothman (N.J.), already on Judiciary, said, "I commented in my local papers that his conduct was morally wrong, and I was deeply disappointed in how he had handled it from the start. But as the only New Jersey member on Judiciary, I feel a very strong obligation to withhold any conclusions about impeachment until I see the Starr report and have an opportunity to evaluate all the evidence."
Black Democrats were strongly supportive of the president. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (Va.), for example, said, "Everyone agrees what he did was wrong, but very few want to see him impeached . . . and there are more important things to move on to."
"Most of the people back home indicated to me they recognize the president is neither above nor below the law," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.). "There's no need to rush to judgment. They would like to see the report and they would like to see his response to the report."
But that kind of support was hard to find yesterday, even among the president's closest allies. "I think we have to see what the report says," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.). "We're not going to rush to judgment. Obviously, I'm disappointed, angry at the position the president has put us in. I believe the president is very angry at himself. I think he's not only ashamed of his conduct but I think he's also very sorry about the position he's put his wife and his child in and put the country in -- as well as all of us. And we have to see where we go from here." One House Democrat from the Midwest said anyone who spoke publicly at this time of great tumult was "foolish."
"Anybody who goes out there right now is a lightning rod," the lawmaker said, noting that the great fear among congressional Democrats today is what will be in the Starr report. Following his own advice, he asked not to be identified.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (Calif.), however, chose to be outspoken. "I feel really destroyed from inside over what he did and how he handled it," she said of Clinton. "I go to bed with it in my head and I wake up thinking about it. This [her trip back to Washington yesterday] was the first time I flew back here with a sense of dread."
Staff writers Eric Pianin and Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
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