Impeachment Stirs Anxiety in House GOP
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page A1
Even as Judiciary Committee Republicans push for articles of impeachment against President Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, most other House Republicans appear torn by the decision or eager to find a way out of the thicket.
Dozens of interviews with House Republicans conducted during and after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's day-long testimony Thursday revealed little, if any, enthusiasm for a protracted impeachment battle with Clinton.
What's more, a few Republicans have begun speaking out against impeaching the president, which could enhance prospects that Congress will seek a face-saving alternative such as censure to end the year-long political crisis.
"I'm very certain there are not enough votes to impeach the president," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), one of the opponents. While the allegations against the president may well constitute violations of the law, he said, "I do not believe they are impeachable offenses comparable to treason or bribery."
Members' search for a way out is propelled by several factors, not least of which is their recognition that the Senate is unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to convict and remove the president. While Republicans are troubled by widespread voter disapproval of their party's handling of the impeachment proceedings, many also fear Clinton might go unpunished unless an alternative sanction is found. And some lawmakers appear genuinely conflicted over whether the president's conduct merits throwing him out of office.
"I want to hear why these offenses are impeachable," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "I think that's going to be the case with lots of members. I'm not 100 percent convinced they are impeachable. I want to know more."
Starr's 12 hours of testimony Thursday may have emboldened GOP members of the Judiciary Committee in their drive for impeachment, but other House Republicans are far more divided about the wisdom of that approach. There was little discernible evidence that the independent counsel's appearance while deemed impressive by many had much impact in changing minds. And even some conservatives who have criticized the president were musing about finding creative alternatives out of the crisis.
Rep. David M. McIntosh (Ind.), the leader of the House GOP's conservative caucus, said he is intrigued by the idea of impeaching and convicting the president for lying about the Lewinsky affair and obstructing justice, but allowing him to complete his term with the proviso that he could never again hold public office.
"I don't think the Constitution provides for censure," he said. "It would establish a bad precedent and weaken our form of government. I do think we have to do our duty and determine whether high crimes and misdemeanors were committed. And I think Starr provided very strong evidence of the crimes and obstruction of justice."
Five Republicans, including senior members of the appropriations and budget committees and a prominent conservative activist, have said they will vote "no" should the House Judiciary Committee report out articles of impeachment next month. A handful of other moderates have indicated privately that they will oppose impeachment but are not yet ready to make that stance public.
Some members suggested that as many as 20 Republicans were ready to oppose 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, such defections would virtually assure the demise of any impeachment article that reaches the House floor.
Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and a vigorous opponent of impeachment, said Congress must choose some lesser form of punishment, such as formal censure, and then "move on."
"The purpose of impeachment is not to punish an errant president but to protect the country," Porter said. "A resolution of censure would have strong bipartisan support and would send the message the president's conduct is not acceptable."
Republican Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), a senior member of the House Budget Committee, Jack Quinn (N.Y.) and Mark Edward Souder (Ind.), a leader among the House conservative activists, have also said they would oppose impeachment based on the current evidence. "I believe that the interest to impeach the president is running out of gas," Quinn said recently.
The Senate presents even more formidable obstacles. Republicans hold 55 seats, 12 short of the 67 votes required for conviction if all senators are present, and some Republicans have indicated support for a lesser sanction. Both GOP and Democratic leaders agree that, as of now, a two-thirds majority is well beyond reach.
But, aside from private discussions of censure and a proposal by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to drop impeachment in favor of possible criminal prosecution when Clinton leaves office, most senators are inclined to keep their own counsel until the full House votes on the issue.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) predicted in an interview Friday that the House will impeach Clinton but said the Senate is unlikely to go through the "ordeal" of a trial unless the House vote is "significantly" bipartisan. If the vote to impeach is strictly party-line, censure becomes a possibility, he said.
Yet precisely how Congress will deal with Starr's report and testimony, which charges Clinton with engaging in a "pattern of obstruction" to illegally conceal his sexual affair, remains a mystery. "I think the door is open to alternatives to full impeachment," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). "There may be an opportunity here if the White House is listening and willing."
With outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) largely disengaged from the political drama and Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) reluctant to get involved, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has largely dictated the pace and direction of the proceedings. Many of those Republicans who said they were undecided about impeachment said they were waiting for guidance from Hyde, who has publicly dismissed the idea of censure.
"I can't predict whether we will do a lot or little in November and December" on impeachment, Livingston told reporters late last week. "My own personal intent is to wait and see what the Judiciary Committee does."
For all the renewed attention on impeachment, many Republicans have been more concerned with the post-election shake-up in the leadership and the ripple effect that will have on them than the finer points of Starr's testimony.
"The mood is one of complete detachment if you're not a member of the Judiciary Committee," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who said he is undecided on the impeachment question.
Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the newly minted chairman of the House Republican Conference, said, "None of us likes being in this situation" but "we're willing to let Henry Hyde and the committee do their work."
"We can't shun our responsibility," Watts added. "We may say the facts and evidence might say 'impeach,' we may say the facts and evidence say 'censure' and we may say the facts and evidence say 'do nothing.' But I think we have to let the law and the process and the Constitution speak."
Echoing Watts's sentiments, moderate Reps. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) and Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) said House members had a solemn constitutional duty to await the committee's findings and then cast a vote of conscience. "I don't know a member who is thinking about this in terms of the polls," Johnson said.
A number of conservative lawmakers said their conviction that Clinton should be impeached was strengthened by Starr's performance Thursday.
"My vote will be to go forward with the impeachment," said Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.). "I want to see what the committee recommends, but my feeling is when the president lied to the American people and to a grand jury he severely damaged his credibility as leader of this nation. . . . Based on what I know today, my feelings are the president has violated the law."
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who watched Starr's testimony inside the hearing room, said: "The case Judge Starr made was clear, documented and compelling," and as a result he is more inclined to vote for impeachment.
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) acknowledged that there had been a growing number of Republicans who wanted an end to the impeachment process, but that Starr's testimony may have blunted that movement. He said the same was true of constituents who called his office and said that "they thought Starr had done a stunning job in laying out the case and that they themselves are rethinking their positions."
But Shays, a prominent GOP moderate, said that except for the most ardent Clinton haters, "I don't see anyone trying to impeach the president."
"Most people are trying to figure out how to get [out of this] with some dignity," Shays said. "We so overplayed this issue that we have very little credibility with the public in dealing with it."
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), another moderate who was alarmed that the Republicans lost five House seats in the election, is leaning toward a graceful exit, such as a resolution of censure. "The public is not overwhelmingly interested in seeing this matter pursued," he said.
While much of the resistence to impeachment has come from northeastern GOP moderates, Souder, a prominent conservative, said it would be a serious mistake for his party to ignore the overwhelming public opposition to impeachment.
With the Senate cooling its heels until the House acts, members say there have been only casual conversations between senators since the House authorized its inquiry late last month. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said he may appoint a bipartisan task force to help prepare for a trial, but only if the House signals that impeachment is likely. So far, "no decisions have been made," said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki.
There is at least latent support in both parties for censure, probably enough to constitute a majority, senators say. "People still believe some kind of congressional statement or action is appropriate but there is still not a coalescence about what that would be," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, "My own view is censure is appropriate, and at the right time it will become very relevant."
"The votes for impeachment are not there in the Senate," said Hatch, "but there is a seething discontent among Republicans and Democrats about letting the president slide through despite what they regard as outrageous conduct." While not endorsing censure at this point, Hatch said he believed it would constitute serious punishment.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), whose early September denunciation of Clinton's conduct sent tremors through his party, also supports a rebuke of some kind. "The president has accepted responsibility, apologized and begun a process of atonement and counseling with ministers," he said. "But I still think it ought to end for the sake of history and our children with some statement by Congress about the unacceptability of what the president did," he said.
Staff writers Edward Walsh, Terry M. Neal, Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
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