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In House Inquiry, Virginia Democrat Prepared to Repeat History

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 1998; Page A04

Nearly 25 years after Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.) voted to impeach President Richard M. Nixon, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a fellow Virginian from the state's tobacco-and-textile belt, is poised to cast another vote to remove a president of his own party from office.

Goode, the only House member from Maryland or Virginia willing to hop party lines so far, plays a lanky, backwoods lawyer more comfortable with rural conservatives than city liberals. But in an interview, he is as sharp and direct in his criticism as moderate Reps. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) are guarded about intentions to punish President Clinton.

Goode speaks with a thick Blue Ridge accent and attributes his party identification to New Deal genealogy: "My daddy was a Democrat."

"My father would have liked Bill Clinton as a person. He was a lawyer and commonwealth's attorney," Goode said. "But I'm sure he would be shocked when the first defendant came into his courtroom and said, 'I don't have to tell the truth because the president didn't tell the truth.' "

If the House votes to impeach Clinton -- and that vote could come next week -- the president may owe the setback to the crossover votes of a handful of conservative Southern Democrats such as Goode, who in his freshman term in Congress sided with the GOP more often on key votes last year than with Clinton.

Goode and Reps. Ralph M. Hall (D-Tex.) and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) last week said they are willing to oust Clinton for his testimony about his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Impeachment takes 218 votes in the House, and the Republicans expect to have five to 20 defectors among 228 GOP members. So swing lawmakers have become key players, after the House Judiciary Committee members weighing the issue.

In 1974, Watergate committee member Butler bolstered the Nixon hearings' legitimacy when he and five Republicans voted impeachment articles to the House floor. This time, he said, he "wouldn't presume" to tell members how to vote, adding, "I'm just glad it's them."

Butler, speaking from his Roanoke home, repeated his 24-year-old speech that members of the president's party bore a "special responsibility" to transcend party loyalty in their "sacred" impeachment duty.

"I mean, the institution is more on trial at this moment than even the president," Butler said.

Goode, speaking from his office in Rocky Mount, hedged his plans, saying he was waiting to hear the president's response. "The president ought to be given a hearing," he said.

He referred to the committee's invitation to the White House to testify. But Goode added that Clinton appeared to make false statements under oath when he denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky and reviewed her sworn, written denial last January that illegally impeded Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit.

"I want him to explain how that's not perjury," Goode said. "Do I think perjury is an impeachable offense? I do. For me the question is lying under oath. It's not a question of what he tells his wife or someone else. Ask any of the people in jail because of it."

Goode's remarks distance him from members throughout the region who have maintained their party roles. Morella, a moderate Republican whose district leans Democratic, has kept quiet on where she stands, saying through a spokesman that "she is keeping her own counsel" until the committee votes.

Davis shared that line and faces expectations that he will vote to impeach as a new member of the House GOP leadership. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) called early for resignation but has declined comment for weeks.

Among Democrats, Maryland Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn are among the president's staunch defenders, with Wynn branding the GOP resolution authorizing impeachment hearings the partisan equivalent of "war."

Moran, meanwhile, muted his initial reaction that Clinton's lies were "reprehensible" and worthy of resignation. "While the charges may not be impeachable offenses, they are serious enough they should not be dismissed without consequence," Moran said this weekend, adding he could vote to censure the president.

Goode capped 23 years in the Virginia Senate in 1996 by single-handedly forcing Democrats to share committee assignments for the first time in the evenly divided chamber. He challenged Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in a 1994 primary, asking Democrats if they were tired of "trying to excuse the inexcusable . . . [and] defend the indefensible" in the form of allegations of Robb's sexual misconduct while governor.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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