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Divided Republicans Reschedule Debate

Clinton, CNN President Clinton speaks to the nation from the Oval Office Wednesday. (CNN)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A1

    Returning to Washington poised to impeach President Clinton, House Republicans last night postponed this morning's climactic floor session after vigorous debate about whether delay would play into the hands of a White House on the verge of defeat.

    Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) told members "not to leave Washington" and will reschedule the debate as early as Friday and likely no later than Monday. With bombs falling on Baghdad, Livingston was reluctant to send a message that might be seen as undercutting the military, although he indicated he would not hold off for long.

    The decision to defer, however, may only postpone the inevitable. Another spate of 10 critical House Republicans enlisted with the forces pushing for Clinton's removal yesterday, as even more prepared to announce their support of impeachment soon. So few undecided members were left that White House strategists could figure no plausible way to forestall impeachment and the Senate trial that would follow, all but suspending their public efforts as the airstrike began.

    "It's fair to say it's over," said a White House adviser. "It's an illegitimate partisan vote and we'll win it in the Senate."

    The sudden eruption of war with Iraq touched off a fierce debate at a closed-door House GOP caucus meeting last evening at which dozens of members stood up to talk about what they should do about impeachment. Some considered it inappropriate to proceed given the military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, while others pointed out that Congress continued its work during the Civil War and elections were still held during World War II.

    Underlying the discussion was a strategic concern over whether a delay would alter the political equation that has turned so drastically against Clinton in recent days. The cynicism about Clinton's motives was palpable, particularly given that the House that takes office next month will have five more Democrats.

    "Some members felt that the president's goal or intent was to get beyond Jan. 6 and force another impeachment resolution," said Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), who supports impeachment. "Others felt that the national mood or momentum had been moving toward impeachment and if we did not move tomorrow, that momentum would be lost."

    But the speculation about the impact faded after Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), a leading moderate who announced her support for impeachment Tuesday, got up to say that her vote would not change.

    The 2-hour meeting paused when Clinton made his nationally televised speech from the Oval Office addressing the military strike. Livingston, who had already told the White House that he would put off the impeachment vote, sat silently through much of what he would later call "a long and spirited debate." Rather than put the matter to a vote, Rep. James C. Greenwood (Pa.) suggested members defer to Livingston, noting that "this is our speaker's first crisis and we should trust his judgment."

    "There was a lot of division," Greenwood, one of the few moderates still undecided on impeachment, said afterward. "The early, spontaneous response was: 'Plow ahead, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be distracted.' I think cooler heads prevailed over time."

    Even so, Democrats pressed for more restraint by the majority. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Republicans should put off impeachment until all military action has ended. "It shouldn't come up as long as our troops are in harm's way," he said.

    The House had planned to convene at 10 a.m. today to begin considering four articles of impeachment alleging that Clinton committed perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power in concealing his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky in civil and criminal proceedings.

    If the House approves any of the articles on a majority vote, it would send the matter to the Senate for a trial, with a two-thirds vote required to convict and remove Clinton from office.

    With momentum clearly on the side of the Republican majority, Livingston said he would "make no predictions" about the vote but denied White House allegations that GOP leaders have pressured wavering members into jumping aboard the impeachment train.

    "We have left the issue of impeachment to the conscience of the men and women in the Congress, in the House of Representatives," he said after the caucus meeting. "We have not lobbied on that issue. Unfortunately, that has not been the case with respect to the White House and the administration."

    The White House has portrayed its lobbying efforts as appropriately passive, mostly offering to answer questions and set up meetings with the president or his lawyers for members who request them. But however it is characterized, the White House lobbying campaign has not yielded much success.

    Clinton met with one House Republican yesterday, summoning Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.) to the Oval Office to discuss possible alternatives to impeachment. Houghton, one of just four announced Republican impeachment opponents, brought with him a proposal for a congressional censure resolution accompanied by a $500,000 voluntary fine to be paid by the president. As part of the plan, Clinton would have to agree not to engage in any more political fund-raising and could no longer deliver the State of the Union in person. Both sides called the meeting constructive, but it produced no visible results.

    Houghton later described the president as "exhausted and beleaguered," but receptive to the censure plan. "He generally thinks it's a good idea," Houghton said. "I think he has objections to some of the specifics."

    Clinton had to cancel plans to meet with another key House Republican, though, because of the strike on Iraq. Aides said they hope to reschedule a meeting with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) as early as today. Unlike Houghton, who was invited by Clinton, Shays asked for the meeting with the president to discuss the situation after reconsidering his own early opposition to impeachment.

    Clinton had nothing to say publicly about his impeachment fight other than an implicit reference during his address to the nation on Iraq, in which he warned that foreign adversaries such as Saddam Hussein should not underestimate U.S. resolve because of his domestic problems.

    But before the attack, Vice President Gore called again on House Republicans to "recognize the dangers of excessive partisanship" and allow a floor vote on censure, which Livingston has refused to do.

    "There is still time for Democrats and Republicans to come together and embrace a bipartisan compromise, to seek a resolution that is both quick and fair, and try to turn away from the bitter partisanship that we have seen so far," Gore said. "That is what the American people want and that is what is in the best interests of this country."

    Livingston decided to put off the impeachment vote over the initial objections of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and senior Judiciary Committee member Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), both strong proponents of impeachment, members said.

    "I don't see any reason to postpone the vote," McCollum said even as he was entering the GOP conference. "That plays right into Saddam Hussein's hands. That's what terrorists want disruption."

    At a briefing later on the House floor about the Iraq strikes, DeLay challenged Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a Republican former senator, about whether there was any national security reason why the House could not conduct its work while a military strike is going on, according to members present. Cohen, they said, responded that he did not want to meddle with the House but that it was better to show bipartisanship during the moment of crisis to keep up troop morale.

    Livingston first learned of the prospect of imminent strikes from White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta early Tuesday afternoon and the incoming speaker broached the topic with other House leaders during a meeting yesterday morning. At 1 p.m., Livingston met with Gephardt for 15 minutes to discuss whether to delay the impeachment vote in light of the impending airstrike. According to informed sources, both men were already aware that the bombing was set to begin about 5 p.m., but they came out of the session armed with a "contingency plan" to take to their respective caucuses.

    Livingston also joined an ongoing meeting of moderate Republicans just before 3 p.m., laying out the possible options. According to lawmakers who attended the session, several questioned Clinton's decision to launch strikes just as the House was preparing to impeach him.

    As one of the lawmakers explained, Republicans were reluctant to change their schedule for fear of simply strengthening the president's hand. "Who trusts him, who believes in him?" he asked. "And that's really scary."

    Other Republicans said the decision to bomb Iraq fostered even deeper suspicion between the White House and Congress. "I'd like to think we could rise above it, but I'm not at all sure," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a moderate and supporter of impeachment. "It's sad and complicated and it's not the way we should operate."

    But GOP lawmakers said the decision to postpone the lengthy floor debate would not drain the overwhelming support among Republicans for impeachment. "If anything," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), "I think it solidifies it."

    Indeed, for all the confusion it generated, the new military confrontation with Iraq did nothing to slow Clinton's political collapse. Nine more key moderate Republicans once targeted by the White House as possible supporters came out in favor of impeachment and another Republican who had once been counted as an impeachment opponent reversed course and said he will vote yes as well. Altogether, 20 Republicans who appeared winnable for Clinton have proved otherwise in the last two days and others seemed ready to follow today.

    "I cannot as a man, a husband, an elected official, or a father say that President Clinton did not commit perjury and did not do it willfully and calculated, right from the beginning," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.).

    "I will vote to impeach President Clinton because he has shattered the trust of the American people," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).

    "If it is wrong for the defendant at the courthouse in Painesville, Ohio, to lie under oath in a civil proceeding, it is wrong for the president," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), a former county prosecutor who has put people in jail for perjury. "President Clinton was the master of his own demise, in both words and deeds."

    Other key undecided Republicans announcing their support for impeachment yesterday were Jim Leach (Iowa), Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), Jim Kolbe (Ariz.), Rick Lazio (N.Y.), W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.) and Bill Redmond (N.M.). Worse still for Clinton, Republican John Edward Porter (Ill.), who once spoke out against impeachment, said he now will vote for it.

    Another onetime Republican impeachment opponent also signaled yesterday that he may switch. Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.) said he was now undecided following meetings with Judiciary Committee Republicans including Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). Souder spent much of yesterday poring over committee documents in the Gerald R. Ford House Office Building.

    The only good news Clinton got from the Republican side was something of a mixed blessing. Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.) said he was leaning against impeachment, a victory White House aides were not eager to trumpet given that Kim has pleaded guilty to campaign finance law violations.

    Among the undecided Democrats, Clinton received mixed news. Rep. Chris John (La.), an influential conservative Democrat some White House aides feared might bolt from the party line, announced he would vote against impeachment. But Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), the first Democrat to call for Clinton to resign last summer, said he is likely to vote for at least one of the four articles of impeachment.

    By the end of the day, the numbers appeared daunting for the president's defenders. Of a list of 34 moderate Republicans identified by the White House and GOP leaders a week ago as key undecided members, all but seven have now come out for impeachment and none against.

    Republicans control the lame-duck House 228 to 206, plus one independent who caucuses with the Democrats. With Shays and Souder now ambivalent, only three Republicans have sided with Clinton, while four Democrats are leaning toward or solidly behind impeachment. That means that Clinton needs at least a dozen more undecided Republicans to break his way to win assuming he does not lose any more Democrats.

    Staff writers Amy Goldstein, Lorraine Adams and Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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