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Clinton's Chances Dimming in House

Campbell Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) announces Tuesday he will vote for impeachment. (James M. Thresher — The Washington Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A1

    President Clinton's chances of fending off impeachment deteriorated dramatically yesterday as nine key uncommitted Republicans and even one of his few GOP supporters declared that they will vote against him when the House opens its historic debate this week.

    Flying back to Washington from the Middle East, Clinton returned last night to a capital where the momentum for impeachment grew so strong in his four-day absence that his most loyal advisers were despairing and the White House was already girding for the prospect of the first Senate trial of a president in more than a century.

    One after another, House Republicans emerged before microphones or sent out written statements yesterday announcing their decisions to support Clinton's removal. By the end of the day, there was such a dwindling number of undecided moderates left that it was difficult for Clinton backers to fathom where they could find the votes they need.

    While warning that it was still "mathematically possible" for the president to avert impeachment, Republican leaders began to speak out more confidently in advance of Thursday's debate on four articles charging him with perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. "The president is not a king," said Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), who had kept largely silent until recent days. "The president is subject to the laws that govern all of us as citizens."

    Among those Republicans who came off the sidelines yesterday were some the White House had placed great hopes on winning over, including Reps. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), Anne Northup (Ky.) and Michael P. Forbes (N.Y.). Perhaps most crushing for the president's defenders was the decision by Rep. Jack Quinn (N.Y.), one of five declared GOP impeachment opponents, to switch sides.

    "The more I learn about the serious details of perjury and obstruction of justice, the more I am concerned about the president's failure to tell the truth under oath," Quinn said in explaining his reversal.

    With the nation awaiting their collective judgment, many Republicans who stepped forward described agonizing over what almost assuredly will be the vote of their careers, balancing concerns about the rule of law against the public sentiment opposing impeachment.

    "This has been the most difficult and heart-wrenching decision I have ever faced in my 14 years in elective office," said Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), who announced support for the two articles of impeachment alleging perjury by the president. But even in doing that, McHugh evinced little stomach for a Senate conviction and ouster of the president. "I, for one, would accept, even welcome, their mercy," he said.

    Rep. Sue W. Kelly, a fellow New Yorker, anticipated unpleasant consequences for her decision. "There are those who say I'll pay a political price for my vote," she said. "Maybe so. I have searched my conscience, I've prayed long and hard, and I believe in my heart that this is the right decision."

    For Forbes, according to a close associate, the moment that tipped it was a conversation with his college-age daughter, Abigail. "Dad," she told him, "you brought us up to tell the truth."

    At the White House, such explanations did not go down well amid suspicion that arms were being twisted by Republican leaders determined to take down a Democratic president. Just a week ago, sources said, Forbes told a White House aide, "Don't worry about me." And presidential aides wondered skeptically what new facts Quinn could possibly have learned that he did not already know months ago regarding Clinton's attempts to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    "You know what I think happened the Hammer happened," said a frustrated White House aide, using the nickname of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "It's hard to find any other possibility."

    Democrats have not offered any concrete evidence of such pressure and DeLay has denied lobbying colleagues on what he has insisted is a "vote of conscience." But DeLay helped orchestrate the procedural maneuver that in part precipitated the flood of Republicans for impeachment.

    At the urging of DeLay and others, Livingston decided over the weekend to block consideration of a Democratic censure resolution that would condemn Clinton without ending his presidency. By doing so, Livingston cut off any avenue of escape for centrist Republicans who otherwise might have voted against impeachment as long as they had a vehicle for disapproval of Clinton's misconduct.

    "It's very hard to explain to people that you're condoning someone who's lying," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who remained undecided. "From a strictly political perspective, [Livingston's decision] served the purpose of having people grapple with a much more difficult decision."

    With that in mind, Castle tried yesterday to revive censure, sending a proposal to House leaders that in addition to rebuking Clinton would have him agree to pay a $2 million fine to reimburse part of the cost of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation. And a group of seven or eight undecided Republicans consulted on a telephone conference call last night about alternatives to impeachment. But Livingston again rejected a censure vote.

    Despite the seemingly relentless Republican movement for impeachment, the White House officially refused to surrender and cast about desperately for some way any way to reverse the situation. But privately, aides acknowledged that their options were few and their hopes "fading quickly," if not already gone, as one put it. "There's a faint pulse left in the hope of a bipartisan compromise," the aide said, "and as long as it is, we'll try to keep it alive."

    Preparing for a political flat line, though, the president's lawyers have begun researching legal options if the House does vote to impeach.

    Given the lame-duck status of the House, Clinton could try to nullify the vote and force the next House to reconsider the issue when it is sworn in next month. Or Democrats could try to block the reappointment of House "managers" who would serve as prosecutors during a Senate trial. Or they could try to have the Senate dismiss the charges without a trial.

    In addition to Johnson, Northup, Forbes, McHugh and Kelly, key Republicans who decided to vote for impeachment yesterday included Reps. Tom Campbell (Calif.), E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.), Gerald "Jerry" Weller (Ill.) and Fred Upton (Mich.). All but one of those were included on a White House list of possible recruits last week, a roster that has dwindled considerably since then.

    Of the 34 initially included on that list, 20 have now declared support for impeachment and none has come out against. Of the 14 remaining silent, several appear dubious candidates for the White House at this point. Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), for example, has since been tapped by outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to chair the impeachment debate and would thus seem unlikely to buck the party leadership when it comes time to vote, possibly Friday. And recent public comments by Reps. Jay Dickey (Ark.), W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.), Rick Lazio (N.Y.) and Robert W. Ney (Ohio) leave White House advisers pessimistic about converting them.

    With numbers in flux and various lists floating around, Democratic strategists generally estimate there may be about 20 genuinely undecided members and figure they need the bulk of them to overcome the Republicans' 228 to 207 majority and offset the three to five Democratic defectors they expect.

    Indeed, with so many Republicans signing on for impeachment, attention turned to whether the groundswell would extend beyond the perjury articles to the more problematic article alleging obstruction of justice.

    Quinn's desertion was a telling barometer of Clinton's troubles. Until yesterday, he had been among five Republicans opposing impeachment. His change of heart, said retiring Rep. Bill Paxon, a fellow New York Republican, was "devastating, devastating, devastating for the president."

    "I think the cat's out of nine lives," Paxon said. "That's a self-fulfilling prophecy, when people start believing the invincibility is gone."

    Still, Quinn was not the only one who reevaluated previous conclusions. Northup, a conservative Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district in Louisville, had expressed skepticism about impeachment during the fall campaign when her Democratic challenger aired television ads advising voters, "If you want to spend another two years investigating the president's sex life, vote for Anne Northup."

    On the defensive, Northup responded by advocating a censure-based solution. "Based on the evidence now," she said in late October, "I would be very surprised if the president is impeached and I think the Republicans are very eager to get beyond this."

    In explaining her decision yesterday, Northup said, "I certainly have had conflicting feelings about it. But in the end, I believe that the president did not tell the truth, that he lied under oath."

    While the rationales for these shifting positions appeared suspect to Democrats, the Republicans who announced yesterday offered no evidence of pressure from their leaders. Johnson said, in fact, that she had "gotten more calls from Democrats than I thought was appropriate." Among those she talked with was Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former House colleague.

    "I said, 'Bill, what are we going to do about the perjury?'" she recalled.

    "He said, 'The president doesn't think he committed perjury.'"

    "But I said, 'The president's whole case is based on a fabrication and he refuses to take responsibility for his actions.'"

    With the debate scheduled to open at 10 a.m. Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee worked to finish its report to be given to all 435 House members today. In an introduction released last night, the committee said Clinton "has disgraced himself and the high office he holds. His high crimes and misdemeanors undermine our Constitution. They warrant his impeachment, his removal from office, and his disqualification from holding further office."

    The report accused Clinton of working "to defeat" the principle of equal justice under law rather than preserve it. "When he stood before the bar of justice, he acted without authority to award himself the special privileges of lying and obstructing to gain an advantage in a federal civil rights action . . . " said the report. "His resistance brings us to this most unfortunate juncture."

    The Democratic minority on the committee, in a draft report, acknowledged that Clinton's conduct "was wrongful in attempting to conceal an extramarital affair." But, the report said, "we do not believe that the allegations that the president violated criminal laws of the nation in attempting to conceal that affair even if proven true amount to the abuse of official power which is an immutable, historically rooted prerequisite for impeaching a president."

    Staff writers Helen Dewar, Ruth Marcus, John Mintz, Dan Morgan, John Schwartz, Lena Sun and Roberto Suro contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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