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Clinton, Gore Appeal to GOP for Compromise

Gore Vice President Gore on Monday. (AP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A1

    President Clinton and Vice President Gore publicly appealed to House Republican leaders yesterday to consider any "compromise" to head off the fateful impeachment vote slated for later this week even as the president's support eroded among critical swing members with time running short.

    Three House Republicans who had been on a White House target list of undecided members announced yesterday that they will vote to impeach Clinton when the issue reaches the floor Thursday and several others appeared poised to follow suit as early as today. Another key moderate who was one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose impeachment, Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), signaled he was reconsidering and asked to meet with Clinton.

    Increasingly gloomy about their chances of halting the slide, White House officials and their allies intensified efforts to win over the remaining two dozen Republicans who hold Clinton's future in their hands and worked to bolster the few wavering Democratic lawmakers as well.

    The president's lawyers called members to ask if they had questions about his defense against the four articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Gore canceled an out-of-town trip and prepared to contact House Democrats. Labor leaders decided to stage vigils in the home districts of undecided representatives while a liberal group bought radio ads in Washington and two other cities. Even some of the president's Hollywood friends have come to his aid, including Academy Award-winning actor Robert DeNiro.

    As the debate rises to a fever pitch, switchboards at the Capitol were swamped by thousands of calls while congressional e-mail systems crashed under the load of constituent messages. And bracing for the first presidential impeachment vote on the House floor since 1868, Republican leaders warned that the debate may spill over from Thursday to Friday -- and perhaps even into the weekend.

    The subject of all the frenetic activity remained half a world away but keenly attuned to his precarious situation back home. During an unprecedented presidential visit to Gaza yesterday, Clinton was again confronted with questions about impeachment and called on congressional leaders to allow a vote on a censure resolution that would reprimand him but leave him in power.

    "I don't believe it's in the interest of the United States or the American people to go through this impeachment process with a trial in the Senate," Clinton said during a photo opportunity with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "That's why I have offered to make every effort to make any reasonable compromise with the Congress."

    Back in Washington, Gore used similar language, imploring GOP leaders to reconsider their decision to block a censure vote. "What the leadership of the Congress has done is to prevent any kind of compromise along the lines that the American people want to see and, instead, they threaten to put the country through this long ordeal," Gore said.

    But Republican leaders said they sensed no groundswell of criticism from their caucus and planned to stick by their decision. "I haven't had anyone really make the plea to me in really passionate terms," Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said in an interview.

    Without a censure option, the White House has been deprived of its most promising tactic for staving off impeachment because ambivalent Republicans have no other vehicle for expressing their disapproval of Clinton's infidelity with Monica S. Lewinsky and deceit in trying to hide it during the Paula Jones suit and subsequent criminal investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

    In recent days, the trend of decisions by those centrists has gone almost entirely against the president. Including yesterday's announcements, 12 of the 34 Republicans identified by White House and congressional strategists as possible defectors last week have come out in favor of impeachment.

    "This is sort of like a tidal wave," said a former administration official who predicted at least one article of impeachment will pass. "If there were enough time, it would dissipate. But there's such a momentum toward impeachment now."

    Still, White House aides took solace from the theory that Republicans who plan to oppose impeachment are unlikely to reveal their decision until the last minute for fear of being overwhelmed by phone calls. And Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the leading proponent of impeachment in the House, cautioned yesterday that despite the momentum, Clinton could still pull it out.

    "To be quite honest anything is doable," he said in an interview. "This is so serious that members will even change their vote walking over to vote."

    With the president out of the country at the most inopportune moment, White House advisers were at a loss to devise a winning strategy. A few think Clinton should make another speech, perhaps even travel to Capitol Hill to address the House in person. Others urge him to invite groups of moderates to talk with them privately. Some even hold out hope for help from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    But many advisers have concluded that it is too late for a single dramatic gesture to shift the tide. Another public apology would do more harm than good, they reason, given the negative reaction to the president's Friday statement in the Rose Garden. Clinton is unwilling to admit he lied under oath, as some members of Congress have insisted he do. And even if he did, many advisers now believe it would only be used as more evidence against him by impeachment advocates while many moderates would still not be satisfied.

    "We're dealing with a goalpost on a conveyor belt," complained one aide.

    Republicans control the lame-duck House, 228 to 206, with one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Three Democrats have indicated that they will or are likely to vote to impeach Clinton, while five Republicans have gone the other direction. That means the White House needs to persuade nine more Republicans to break party ranks and prevent any more Democratic defections, although all these numbers remain in flux.

    The universe of possible converts continued to shrink yesterday. Republicans Charles F. Bass (N.H.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) and Zach Wamp (Tenn.), all once seen as possible supporters by the White House, announced their support for impeachment. And several others from the White House list -- Reps. Tom Campbell (Calif.), Gerald "Jerry" Weller (Ill.) and Fred Upton (Mich.) -- plan to disclose their intentions today; Democrats were pessimistic that they would side with Clinton.

    Rep. John M. Shimkus (Ill.), who while not initially targeted by the White House had been the focus of GOP attention, also announced he would vote for impeachment, and others who had been listed as undecided indicated through aides yesterday they were strongly leaning in favor of impeachment, including Richard H. Baker (La.), George R. Nethercutt (Wash.) and J.C. Watts (Okla.).

    Among local lawmakers, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said yesterday he will vote to impeach, while Rep. Norman H. Sisisky (D-Va.) promised to vote no, decisions that surprised neither side.

    LoBiondo called the choice "one of the most difficult votes I will have to cast in my career" but concluded, "I cannot in good conscience allow the nation's chief law enforcement officer to violate the law without consequence. After careful consideration of the facts, I believe there is clear and convincing evidence that the president broke the law."

    Wamp, a conservative who won his seat in 1994 but occasionally bucks his party leadership on issues such as campaign finance reform, said he supports charging Clinton with perjury before the grand jury and obstruction of justice. "I think they are undeniable," he said, adding that he was still reviewing the other two articles alleging perjury in a civil deposition and abuse of power.

    One of the most severe blows to the president's fortunes came when Shays, an opponent of impeachment, suggested that he might change his vote because Clinton has refused to admit that he lied. Republican sources said that another declared GOP opponent to impeachment, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.), may be reconsidering.

    "In the process of avoiding a court case, he's risking impeachment," Shays said of Clinton's insistence that he did not commit perjury. While Shays said in an interview that he remains a no vote, he has "less confidence" than a week ago. "I see the tide moving towards impeachment because people believe, like I do, that he still doesn't get it."

    After Shays said publicly that he wanted a face-to-face meeting with Clinton, White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta called him and agreed to set one up for Wednesday after the president returns from the Middle East. Shays said he plans to explain how the president's recent apology served only to infuriate Republicans because he yet again evaded the question of lying.

    "I will tell him what he did on Friday was destructive and very unhelpful to his cause," Shays said. "He's got to wake up."

    White House strategists took some comfort in reports that Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (Va.), one of three Democrats listed in the pro-impeachment column, was reconsidering. But Goode's chief of staff, James W. Severt II, said the rural conservative's position has not changed, describing him as "leaning" toward impeachment without a final decision.

    On the other hand, retiring Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.), a vocal critic of the president who had been championing censure as an alternative to impeachment, now is undecided because impeachment may be the only option on the floor, his top aide said.

    According to Democratic sources, party leaders are still watching to see how conservative Democrats like Bud Cramer (Ala.), William O. Lipinski (Ill.) and Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) will vote.

    To limit defections, Gore plans to call important House Democrats and yesterday decided to scrub plans to fly to New Hampshire on Thursday for economic and environmental events. Advisers determined that the image of the vice president campaigning in the site of the first presidential primary on the same day Clinton might be impeached would send an unhelpful message.

    "For six years the vice president's most important job has been to support President Clinton," said spokesman Christopher Lehane. "For this reason, he will remain in Washington on Thursday."

    Well-funded constituency groups geared up as well. The AFL-CIO has begun a full-bore drive to stop impeachment, calling on members to contact their representatives and to join with civil rights, religious and women's groups in mobilizing anti-impeachment demonstrations. The AFL-CIO has set up a toll-free number that members can call to be transferred to their House member's office. People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, has a similar toll-free transfer line and will begin airing radio advertisements today to solicit callers.

    Other lobbying has been more low-key. The chief aide to Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), an undecided Republican, received an unsolicited call from Clinton attorney David E. Kendall, a constituent, offering to answer any questions she might have.

    And Morella was among several Republicans to hear from DeNiro, who played an unscrupulous political consultant who helps a president fake a war to divert attention from a sex scandal in "Wag the Dog" earlier this year.

    Morella was not able to take the call at the time, but GOP sources said the actor did get in touch with Judiciary Committee member Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), asking whether he could help broker a deal between the two camps. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) also spoke with DeNiro for 10 minutes, according to an aide.

    "Evidently he had phoned the White House asking if there was anything he could do to help," said Ramstad spokesman Dean Peterson, "and he asked my boss to vote against impeachment."

    Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Thomas B. Edsall, Spencer S. Hsu and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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