By Eric Pianin
These moderates -- roughly two dozen in all -- warn they will have little patience with further White House attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the conduct of his investigation. They said they want to hear a cogent response to and rebuttal of Starr's specific allegations that Clinton repeatedly lied in sworn testimony about his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and that he sought to obstruct justice and get others to lie.
"I have been frustrated by the line of defense so far," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a leader of the House GOP moderates who has yet to take a stand. "They have to get away from attacks on the whole procedure and a highly legalistic defense. They have to get into a factual defense."
"What I don't want to hear is this 'it's not my fault' adolescent attitude," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), whose downtown San Diego district voted for Clinton in the last two presidential elections. "There are a lot of us who are more outraged at the tactics than the charges themselves."
As the president's lawyers appear today before the House Judiciary Committee, their crucial audience will not be the American public or even a majority of the Congress, but a group of 20 to 25 moderate Republicans who will likely cast the decisive votes next week when the full House is expected to consider articles of impeachment.
Ever since their party gained control of Congress in 1994, GOP moderates from the Northeast and Midwest have operated in the shadows of their more conservative leaders and colleagues. While occasionally displaying political muscle, as they did in joining forces with the Democrats this year to block anti-environmental provisions and to pass campaign finance reform in the House, the moderates usually have had to fight for attention.
Now, however, they have been cast in the limelight because of the pivotal role they will play in the final votes on impeachment next week. And with strong political pressures being applied from the right wing of the party, many of the moderates appear to be stepping back from what had once been seen as Clinton's last line of defense.
"The moderates are in a very difficult position," said Thomas Mann, a government scholar with the Brookings Institution. "The mobilization of the conservative groups and activists have made most of them realize it's unwise to take a visible position against impeachment."
With only remote prospects for a vote on censure because of strong opposition from House GOP leaders and growing Republican disenchantment with the White House's handling of the political crisis, some moderates say they may have no choice but to vote for impeachment. Even so, sources said that discussions have intensified among moderates about the possibility of a censure proposal, with Castle emerging as a key point of contact.
"I'm seriously looking at impeachment, as are a number of other members," Castle said yesterday. "There isn't exactly a rush to vote no on impeachment, among moderates or any other group."
Rep. John M. McHugh (N.Y.), another uncommitted Republican moderate, said that absent a dramatic shift in the White House defense strategy, many of the undecided members may have little choice but to support one or more articles of impeachment.
"The old saying 'the best defense is a good offense' may have its application," McHugh wrote to Clinton. "However, given the circumstances in this matter, I believe the best defense would be one that rebuts the charges in question and deals with the substance of the independent counsel's referral."
In a further blow to the president, Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), one of only four moderate Republicans to openly oppose impeachment, jointly signed a "Dear Colleague" letter with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), an archenemy of the president's, opposing any efforts to revive the censure movement.
"I only know of a few [moderates] who will vote against impeachment," Shays said in an interview. "I'm making an assumption that all the rest are potentially for it."
With the Judiciary Committee expected to vote by the end of this week on articles of impeachment related to perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, Clinton's defenders were increasingly turning their attention to a likely battle in the full House next week.
The White House has been given a list of roughly two dozen Republicans who officials believe could be persuaded to oppose impeachment, either on the merits of the case or on the basis of the political makeup of their districts. The list is heavily tilted to the Northeast, and these lawmakers are from districts that Clinton carried in 1996, and where there is a significant Democratic vote in general.
So far, only moderate Reps. John Edward Porter (Ill.), Jack Quinn (N.Y.), Peter T. King (N.Y.) and Shays, as well as conservative Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.), have come out against impeachment.
Because the GOP holds a fragile 11-vote majority in the current Congress and the Democrats can be expected to present a relatively solid bloc of support for the president, widespread defections would virtually ensure the demise of any impeachment article that reached the House floor. But such defections have yet to materialize though they seemed imminent only two weeks ago.
King conceded yesterday that the momentum on Capitol Hill had clearly shifted in favor of impeachment, and Clinton must reverse this trend in the next few days.
Moreover, Porter, who was one of the most vigorous Republican opponents of impeachment, said yesterday, "I'm not in a position to say where I am."
He said that he was looking for four things from the upcoming White House presentation before the Judiciary Committee: "Sincerity, honesty, candor, humility."
Bilbray, who is also wrestling with the decision, said: "I need to have an explanation that I can take to my children and that they can take to their children to explain why Brian Phillip Bilbray voted the way he did -- something that will wash in the next generation, and the generations to come."
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company