By Guy Gugliotta
In the elevator a member wondered whether some local reporter was going to poke a microphone in his face and to ask him about his past sex life, like what happened to "one of my colleagues this morning." A letter calling on Clinton to resign was going hungry for lack of signatures, stuck on 17 and holding.
Success in the House -- in getting a letter signed, an amendment debated or a bill passed -- is a daily coming-together of dozens of small alliances around common interests. The groups push and pull at each other, threaten and cajole the leadership, talk tough and back off at appropriate moments.
It is, as many members will admit, the wonderful essence of the congressional game, but this week many of the alliances were laboring joylessly under the dark cloud cast by the House's investigation into the president's extramarital involvement with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
The Congressional Black Caucus may contain Clinton's largest bloc of defenders, but yesterday Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), one of its most prominent members, was defending Clinton's chief Republican investigator on Capitol Hill, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (Ill.), whose 1960s extramarital affair was the subject of a well-publicized magazine story this week.
"We all ought to take a deep breath and be as nice as we can to each other," Rangel suggested. "If purity was a qualification to vote in the House of Representatives, we may not be able to have a quorum."
In many instances, it was clear yesterday that rank-and-file members, living the daily anguish of the Clinton investigation, were making a concerted effort to gentle down with one another.
Members were not signing onto the resignation letter sent by Rep. George Purdy Radanovich (R-Calif.). "Some want to be careful that this conflict does not have a partisan slant," Radanovich said. Others thought the next documents would be enough to do the job for them, he added, while still others appeared to think their signatures would invite a smear job on their past.
It was certainly going through the mind of Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.). Riding a tide of legislative victories -- on taxes, on education, on mammography screening -- the Lunch Bunch's Johnson was dismayed to see the House's troubled waters further roiled. "These attacks on our leadership have been upsetting and distracting to the body," she said. "It's terribly destructive."
Also faring "not so well" was the letter sent around by Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) asking the Judiciary Committee to release everything in its possession all at once, to avoid the "selective leaking" of material designed "to embarrass the president and not to find the truth."
Both Deutsch's and Radanovich's initiatives got an airing Wednesday during the weekly meeting of the 18-member Blue Dogs, a coalition of mostly rural Democratic conservatives who played a pivotal role in the debate that produced last year's historic balanced budget deal.
This year, said Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), there is no budget agreement and the Blue Dogs cannot agree on much else (trade, guns, abortion) so they meet to discuss the different things they're working on: "We're not a group that takes positions on everything."
So when Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) told the Dogs Wednesday he was going to call for a full impeachment inquiry and sign the Radanovich letter, the group listened. "There were some members who, I would say, questioned his judgment, but if that's the way Gene feels, that's his business," Peterson said.
Similarly, when Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.) made a pitch for the Deutsch letter, and Peterson decided to sign on because he thought it was "a good idea," there was no stampede to join him.
Then Peterson went back to work on the farm crisis, moving comfortably to another alliance (farm legislators) who yesterday announced a $4 billion aid package. Far from "dropping the ball," Peterson said, Clinton played a pivotal role. Peterson didn't get structural changes he wanted, but he got the money: "That's how the system works."
Over at CATS, conservatives were hoping that a weakened administration might be more amenable to GOP-style tax cuts and saw the possibility of compromise. That would be a better shake than normal for this alliance, still traumatized by the public relations beating administered by Clinton during the government shutdown, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) said. "His believability quotient is down now," Souder said. "But when he sticks to his basic message and his basic policies, he's extremely impressive."
It is the policy, not the personality, on which the New Democrats are focusing. These mostly suburban moderates, about 40 of them, are more closely allied with Clinton policywise than any other alliance in the House, and theoretically, at least, might have the biggest risk.
No, said Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), quite the opposite: "People don't particularly trust the president or agree with his character, but they like his New Democrat policies. Right now what we represent is the one shred of silver lining in the president's horizon."
Maybe not. Like the Black Caucus, the small Hispanic Caucus was another island of support in a hostile environment. Clinton will appear at the Hispanic Caucus Foundation's annual fund-raiser Sept. 23, and he will probably get plenty of applause.
"He's the most powerful white male in the world, but he's being protected by people of color who want him to have a fair shake," said Puerto Rico-born Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.). "We recognize that the way he's being treated is the way we've been treated for so long."
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