Voters Angry, but Lawmakers Divided
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A01
The weekend, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) said yesterday, was "intense -- like nothing I've ever seen." Hundreds of phone calls in the Washington office, hundreds more in the district office, finger-wagging spectators at the Notre Dame game, a nasty buzz in the airport when his flight landed.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) estimated that 300 to 400 people had called his office, many of them saying, "Impeach him or I'll vote to get you out of office." Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) got 850 e-mails, plus 500 phone calls in three days, more than three times the norm "for a hot issue."
It was immediately clear from interviews with House members that publication of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton's involvement with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and deceiving the nation about it had provoked an outpouring of public outrage that threatens to consume Congress.
For Republicans, the drumbeat for Clinton's resignation or impeachment rang loudly. Democrats warned Clinton to abandon his legalistic hairsplitting if he hoped to survive the Lewinsky scandal and save his presidency.
Conservative Republican Rep. George Purdy Radanovich (Calif.) and retiring Democratic Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), who called for Clinton's resignation a month ago, yesterday began seeking co-signers on a letter urging the president to step down.
"Your admission of directly lying to the American people and a broad range of improper and illegal conduct has precipitated a crisis of governance of the highest order," the letter said. "You have abused the power of your office to sustain a predatory and repugnant relationship with a young employee . . . and those actions clearly bring forth questions of impeachable behavior."
Also yesterday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) added his name to the list of those calling for Clinton's resignation, becoming the first Washington area member of Congress to do so.
But while members made clear their disdain for Clinton and his behavior, not every Republican, including some conservatives, was ready to embark on the ordeal of impeachment.
"I quite frankly didn't think this [the Starr report] was a slam dunk," said Souder. "There is a very high threshold for impeachment. In my opinion he committed perjury, but I think it's a pretty difficult case to make that there has been a pattern of abuse of power."
The dilemma for Republicans, added moderate Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), arises if Clinton refuses to take matters into his own hands.
"The bottom line is if I had been serving in office and had done anything like the president, I would have resigned months ago," Shays said. "[But] from what I have read, I don't think it meets the threshold of removal from office. I just believe if you're going to overturn the will of the American people, you need to reach a very high threshold."
But for virtually all Republicans, the report was a damning description of presidential dissembling under oath. "It's fairly clear" from the Starr report, said moderate Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that the president committed perjury.
Added Coburn, a north Oklahoma conservative: "Sex isn't the problem, deceit is the problem. If you say everything truthfully as far as your words are concerned, but your intention is to deceive, that's a lie."
Many Democrats agreed. "The concern is, can we get back to the issues," Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) said. "One way to get back to the issues, the key way, is for the president to come clean."
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), locked in a tight race in his western Illinois swing district, said he thought his constituents "are going to look beyond the president" during the campaign to "the merits of the individual candidates."
Still, he added, "obviously we would like to have this behind us. I think that there's a real problem for the president to continue to rely on legal technicalities. If he continues to maintain that posture, he'll continue to lose support."
But even if Clinton were to make further admissions, that would not be enough for many Republicans, who regard an impeachment inquiry as all but inevitable and scoffed at the possibility of congressional censure or some other non-constitutional remedy.
Calling censure "a nonsense idea," Rep. Robert L. Barr (R-Ga.), one of the president's loudest detractors, said, "It sets a terrible precedent for future presidents that they can abuse their office, because all they're going to get is a slap on the wrist."
Added Coburn: "We cannot dumb down the standard for accountability and character in this country. That's why censure is not a possibility."
And Clinton, despite historically strong support among female voters, found little sympathy among the House's GOP women. "From what I am seeing, there is a pretty overwhelming evidence of perjury and certainly obstruction of justice." Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.) said.
Freshman Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.), facing a difficult reelection race, said she found the report troubling, but spoke cautiously about what should happen next. "It's very important that all Americans are reassured that this isn't a political process, that this is constitutional process," she said.
Still, she added, "I do hope that we move forward as quickly as possible without trampling on anybody's rights." It was a sentiment shared by every member interviewed, regardless of party: that the matter must be resolved, even if it meant working through the rest of the year and ignoring the election season.
"I believe that we have reached a situation where this must be resolved fairly, completely and quickly, even with an election looming," conservative Rep. John David Hayworth (R-Ariz.) said. "I am not opposed to the idea of staying here to fulfill our constitutional obligations, even in lame-duck session, should the president see fit not to resign."
The broadest and deepest level of Clinton loyalty appeared to come from the Congressional Black Caucus. "In my generation, men always did deny outside affairs," said Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), who called the Starr report pornographic. "We don't look at it as being perjury."
And Caucus Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said black members view themselves as "fairness cops" in the Clinton controversy. African Americans "have interacted with a system that has not always been fair," she said. "Our constituents, for the most part, really like what we are doing."
Carson, a first-termer from Indianapolis, said her opponent hopes to use the Clinton scandal against her, but she believes the strategy could backfire if the GOP is seen as dragging out the controversy. "It could build up momentum for people to come out," she said.
And Republican Souder, a self-described "hard-liner," noticed that in the crush of well-wishers and Clinton bashers who greeted him at Notre Dame over the weekend, there were those who "stood silently" next to them. "They're not defending the president," he said. "They're just sick of the subject."
Or maybe both, suggested freshman Rep. Bobby R. Etheridge (D-N.C.), a moderate whose opponent has already used the scandal in campaign television ads. He expressed confidence that "my constituents know me and know I haven't changed," but he acknowledged that "people want this to go away," and they want to "punish someone."
"People prefer him to resign," Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) said of Clinton. "One of this president's great strengths is his ability to make people think he's sitting there in their living room talking to them, but the flip side to that is that they feel he came into their living room and personally lied to them."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Terry M. Neal and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company