By Ceci Connolly
Impeaching the president -- and effectively overriding the election of 1996 -- should not be undertaken lightly, Gephardt cautioned. Still, "that doesn't mean it can't be done or shouldn't be done; you just better be sure you do it the right way."
Gephardt said if Clinton were to leave office, "we'll get through this."
In a series of campaign appearances and press interviews, the top Democrat in the House sent a not-too-subtle signal to the White House he cannot be counted on to blindly back the president.
"If Congress decides to go forward with an impeachment process, we will be involved in perhaps the most important task the Congress will ever have," he said during a stop here. "We have to, under the Constitution, carefully examine the facts and then make a judgment on whether or not he should be expelled from office."
Gephardt spent Monday talking with House Democrats about their concerns over fallout from the scandal. Clinton's fate increasingly depends on the willingness of congressional Democrats to support him. Administration aides had urged Democratic allies to declare the Lewinsky saga over after Clinton's speech to the nation in which he acknowledged having an inappropriate relationship with the former intern. But very few congressional Democrats have done so in the week following the speech, and many have been openly critical of the president for the relationship and his handling of it.
According to congressional aides, the House members who spoke to Gephardt Monday said they were "upset, disappointed, angry" with Clinton's speech and were "not willing to say this is over." Several told the Democratic leader that it was a problem for the party that Clinton had not cleared the air and been "more definitive" in his explanation. Many said, according to aides, that they "don't know what else to do except wait for the [independent counsel's] report."
In an interview this afternoon aboard his plane, Gephardt talked of the uncertainty ahead. "There's going to be a lot more said and written about it before we're done," he said, noting that the media scrutiny of Clinton was "legitimate."
Gephardt said he has not spoken to Clinton since the president's speech. The two men have never been close and signs of tension were evident as the House Democratic leader took pains to make clear his disapproval of Clinton's behavior. "I'm very disappointed in what he did," Gephardt said, echoing comments he made immediately following Clinton's speech. "There is no way to condone his behavior -- the whole totality of what happened in the White House and what he said about it afterward."
Earlier in the day, Gephardt told radio station WARM in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., "It was wrong and it was reprehensible."
Although Gephardt stressed he will wait for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report before making any specific judgments, his remarks were particularly ominous because he was the one mentioning words such as impeachment, expel and Watergate.
"I'm a prospective grand juror," Gephardt said in the interview. "We need to do this right. It needs to be nonpartisan. It needs to be objective. It needs to be careful. It needs to be rational. I think this is a big test for Congress, whether we can do this right. If this becomes a partisan street fight the American people are really going to be turned off."
Asked if people can trust the president, he replied: "Clearly that's an issue that has to be dealt with and I think the president will deal with it."
Gephardt, a prospective presidential candidate in 2000, is on a three-day campaign swing intended to trumpet some of the party's most promising House candidates. Instead, he and the candidates he stumped with spent much of the day fielding questions about the scandal engulfing Clinton.
During a visit to the home of former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey, whose son is running for an open House seat, all three men were peppered with questions on how the Clinton scandal might play out this fall.
"What he did was wrong," said the young Pat Casey. "We can't dismiss that." On the question of impeachment, he said: "I'm not going to speculate."
Gephardt, on the other hand, made clear his priority: "I want to keep the trust and faith and confidence of the American people."
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