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GOP's Historic Mistrust of Clinton Fuels Impeachment Drive

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  • By Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A18

    Long before they had ever heard the name Monica S. Lewinsky, many House Republicans insisted that President Clinton could not be trusted.

    He sucker-punched them during the 1995 government shutdown, they said, going on television to attack them 15 minutes after they thought they had forged a deal. He expropriated their ideas to balance the budget and reform welfare. He snubbed their investigations into alleged administration wrongdoing.

    "I think all members, Democrats and Republicans, found that he was an individual who has his conscience mounted on a mobile home frame and can move it anywhere that's convenient," retiring Rep. Mike Parker (R-Miss.) said yesterday.

    House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was even more blunt in a recent statement: "I don't believe a word he says."

    Such feelings -- voiced by many Republicans -- help explain the growing momentum behind the impeachment drive. Whatever goodwill once existed toward Clinton disappeared long before the House Judiciary Committee voted last week to impeach him for lying in sworn testimony about his sexual affair with the former White House intern.

    Many of Clinton's critics and enemies complain that he routinely dissembled in advancing his policies, with little thought to the long-term consequences. That past may be coming back to haunt the president, as members consider how to vote on impeachment.

    "I don't think he has much credibility left," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.). "I think the impeachment is the icing on the cake."

    White House officials, while conceding the president's conduct was wrong in the Lewinsky matter, have dismissed the Judiciary Committee's action as the product of base partisanship stemming from years of political warfare. And some Democrats who consider themselves victims of Clinton's maneuvering early in his first term say the Republicans are looking for reasons to justify their drive to impeach the president.

    "For people looking for excuses they can certainly find them," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), an opponent of impeachment. "If you want to talk about credibility, some of the people in the Republican leadership keep moving the goal posts in terms of what their demands would be to accept even the notion of a censure resolution."

    Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.) noted that during the Reagan administration "there were occasions when President Reagan's staff said one thing and it turned out to be the exact opposite."

    "Certainly you don't relate impeachment to changes of mind and political decisions," Matsui added. "I am astonished by that."

    Indeed, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Rules Committee, said many Republicans see impeachment as a matter of conscience and are trying to put aside their feelings of betrayal. "The lack of trust doesn't necessarily create ill will," he said.

    It did, however, for Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) during the first few months of 1993, when Tauzin was still a Democrat and Clinton was a brand-new president who needed help passing his first budget.

    The package contained a new type of energy tax that the oil and gas industry violently opposed, as did conservative, oil-belt Democrats such as Tauzin. The night before the House voted, he and a group of like-minded colleagues received a telephone call from Clinton.

    "The president said that in exchange for our vote, he would immediately order the tax removed [from the bill], and said we could announce it, and that he would appear at a news conference and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us," Tauzin said. The next day Tauzin voted for the budget package, which passed by a single vote. The following weekend Clinton announced that he intended to keep the tax in the bill, though it faced insurmountable opposition in the Senate and the president knew it would be stripped out.

    "I came as close as I ever have to resigning," Tauzin said. "He put in jeopardy the credibility I had built with my constituents over 20 years. People who had trusted me for years were questioning my word."

    Tauzin lists that incident among the reasons he became a Republican in 1995 and said he is struggling to keep an open mind on impeachment. "There is nothing he [Clinton] could say to me this week that would make me trust him," Tauzin said. "I think he lies for his purposes whenever he needs to and wants to."

    Some Republican leaders say the seminal incident occurred during the bitter budget talks of November 1995, when they thought they had struck a deal with Clinton that would avert a second government shutdown and put them on the track to a final deal.

    While the Republicans were still meeting and venting and trying to figure out what to do next, Clinton went to the White House press room in time to make the networks' evening news shows. "They wanted us to agree to deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid just as a condition to talk," he said. "Once again they are threatening to shut the government down if I do not accept their deep cuts."

    "We can't trust these guys," DeLay fumed at the time. The majority whip, who has emerged as one of the strongest and most influential proponents of impeachment, said yesterday that the incident "taught me a lesson to be very careful with Clinton."

    "I have made speeches for the last four years saying that you don't spend his money till his check clears the bank," he said.

    Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) was one of 26 Republicans who voted to create AmeriCorps, Clinton's national service program, after receiving assurances from the administration that it would be a low-key operation to funnel student volunteers into existing social agencies and government programs.

    Instead, Hoekstra complained, it became a signature administration program with a large national constituency that the administration used to its political advantage.

    Dreier remembers the fight he waged to help Clinton win so-called "fast track" authority for accelerated procedures in negotiating trade agreements. With his own party decidedly unfriendly toward the measure, Dreier worked for months to line up GOP support, and "my staff waited and waited" for the White House to arrive and help negotiate a bill.

    "When he finally got engaged, he worked very hard," Dreier said. "But his inability to deliver more than 42 votes was a damning indictment of his efforts." In the end the Republicans killed the bill for lack of Democratic votes. And as a coda, Dreier said, Clinton made fast track a top legislative priority during this year's State of the Union address, only to oppose Dreier's suggestion to bring it to the floor.

    "We've been around the track too many times," Dreier said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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