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  • By R.H. Melton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, October 18, 1998; Page A20

    For years, the three Virginians on the House Judiciary Committee have toiled on Capitol Hill in relative obscurity, tending to constituent chores and pet projects from downstate seats that they have easily defended in recent elections.

    But once Congress began the march toward an impeachment inquiry of President Clinton, Democratic Reps. Boucher and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott and Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte were obscure no more.

    Suddenly, Boucher was conferring with Clinton over Democratic proposals to limit the scope of the inquiry, Scott was appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live" to bemoan GOP efforts against the president, and Goodlatte was on C-SPAN, defending Republicans' calls for a broad probe of the president's actions concerning former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

    It's the kind of attention that could feed the ego of anyone, much less three politicians who acknowledge they have ambitions of running for statewide office. But the uncomfortable questions raised by a presidential scandal that revolves around an extramarital affair have made the congressmen wary of their higher profiles.

    "Not part of the job I signed up for," Boucher said. "A somber occasion," Goodlatte said. Scott complains that the GOP-led House has made the inquiry a "partisan charade" that no one should be proud of.

    The Virginians agree that the Judiciary Committee's inquiry, which will kick into gear after the November elections, will be the toughest political challenge they have faced. Their politics -- Boucher a conservative Democrat, Scott a liberal Democrat, Goodlatte a conservative Republican -- reflect not only their upbringings, but a rainbow of Virginia politics.

    Since he was elected in 1982, Boucher, 52, of Abingdon, in the state's coal-rich southwestern corner, has focused on ways to stimulate the economy in his rural, working-class district. Most recently he has stressed how new technologies can present job opportunities in areas such as his.

    Clinton has cited Boucher's efforts in promoting a Democratic plan to limit the scope of the inquiry, a plan that was rejected by the Judiciary panel in favor of a Republican call for a broad inquiry.

    "The [Democratic] proposal . . . was developed by Congressman Boucher from Virginia, a man who comes from a conservative rural district and who . . . fought for it in the Judiciary Committee . . . and said that the elemental principle of fairness was that we ought to define a standard of what the conduct is being judged by," Clinton said recently.

    Newsweek reported last week that Clinton called Boucher at home after the Virginian had been asked by House Democratic leaders to draft the plan for a limited inquiry. Boucher, who met Clinton during the 1972 presidential campaign of George S. McGovern, advised him to say publicly that Democrats "should be free to vote their conscience" and the president did so, the magazine reported.

    Scott, 51, who helped Boucher draft the Democratic proposal, is from the shipbuilding city of Newport News. He is the son of physician and civil rights activist C. Waldo Scott, who died three days after his son was sworn in to Congress in 1993.

    The younger Scott cut his political teeth on the courtly but sometimes cutthroat Virginia General Assembly, as did Boucher. Though generally cautious, the younger Scott never feared a good fight; once, he infuriated white constituents by holding up the legislative reelection of a judge because of the judge's membership in a whites-only country club.

    The club soon integrated.

    State Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), whose father was ousted from Congress by Boucher in 1982, said Scott "always shot straight" after advancing to the state Senate from the House of Delegates in 1983.

    "I think the world of him," Wampler said. "Even if you disagreed with him, his word was always good."

    Goodlatte, 46, from the mountainous railroad city of Roanoke, is a longtime soldier in Virginia's Republican Party, which is an increasingly powerful force in state politics and is on the verge of a historic takeover of the state legislature.

    Since his election in 1992, Goodlatte, a Massachusetts native, has worked on such issues as giving localities more control over the location of communications towers and seeking tougher penalties against commercial counterfeiters and telemarketing fraud schemes.

    Longtime colleagues and constituents said they expect the three to balance a sense of fairness with their political instincts in the forthcoming debate over impeachment.

    "I have a lot of respect for all three," said retired U.S. representative M. Caldwell Butler (R), of Roanoke, who helped seal President Richard M. Nixon's fate as a Judiciary Committee member during the 1974 impeachment hearings. "They're conscientious. . . . All three bring intellectual integrity to what they're doing."

    All three of the Virginians face relatively easy reelections next month -- Scott has no Republican opponent in a district that snakes from Newport News to Richmond -- and the opponents of Goodlatte and Boucher have tried to make their stands on impeachment a focus of energetic if under-funded challenger campaigns.

    Roanoke Mayor David A. Bowers, who is Goodlatte's challenger, said that Clinton has committed no impeachable offense and that the inquiry into the president's actions should be wrapped up quickly.

    "My opponent is splashed across the front page as the 'impeachment congressman,' " Bowers said. "I don't want to be that obsessed."

    Boucher has proven to be a nimble Democrat in a district becoming increasingly Republican, and most analysts expect him to hold off a challenge by local ophthalmologist Joe Barta, who is spending $200,000 of his own on the race.

    With his visible role in recent days, "Rick Boucher has finally come out of the closet and shown the people of Southwest Virginia what he really is: a liberal," said Chris LaCivita, executive director of the Virginia GOP.

    Boucher scoffed at that, saying: "I don't think this issue affects races in Virginia. It's not pleasant work. The facts are almost irrelevant. What's relevant is getting the rules right."

    State Sen. John S. Edwards (D), whose Roanoke district nearly straddles the line between Goodlatte's conservative 6th District and Boucher's populist 9th District, agreed.

    "I don't think Rick would be out front on it if he didn't have a sense of his constituents," Edwards said.

    Boucher said he, Goodlatte and Scott talk frequently, often several times a day, reflecting what all three said is a collegial relationship. Boucher and Goodlatte are bound by more than geography; the two worked together in a Judiciary subcommittee to update copyright laws for the high-technology era.

    "My job is not to predict what will happen in this process but to look at the facts," said Goodlatte, who recalled the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan's description of a "very dignified" House debate during the Watergate scandal that was not without its "partisan passion."

    Scott said that in the end, there may be little that he, Boucher and other Democrats can do to affect the inquiry in a meaningful way. "Republicans win, that's the score," Scott said, noting the GOP majority in the House. "They can say, yeah, they impeached the man."

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