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  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A25

    Room B339 in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building could be called Lame Ducks Central, but a sign taped to the door identifies it with the more dignified title of Departing Member Center.

    It is one of three rooms, normally used for banquets, that have been transformed into mini-offices for use by the 40 members who are leaving the House. Blue partitions divide the rooms into cubicles, each equipped with a desk, chair, computer, telephone and fax machine.

    Having given up their regular Capitol Hill offices in the transition to the next Congress, the departing members, as they are known, have only these minimalist surroundings in which to spend their last hours in the House and prepare to cast the most important vote of their careers -- on the impeachment of President Clinton.

    It is, to say the least, an unusual and unexpected way to end their time in the House.

    "To have it said that the most important vote of your career is your last vote after 20 years is a little bit bizarre," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) remarked wistfully.

    "It's a hell of a note to go out on, and I can't imagine anybody feeling anything but lousy to have this be the last thing you get to vote on," said Rep. David E. Skaggs (D-Colo.). "In a sadly ironic way I guess it makes leaving a little easier because no one could savor this part of the experience. I find it all so sad."

    Of the 40 soon-to-be-departed members, 22 are Republicans and 18 are Democrats. Twenty are voluntarily retiring, 10 lost races for governor or senator, seven were defeated for reelection and three were elected to the Senate, where next year they may have to pass final judgment on Clinton's conduct.

    In terms of experience, they range from Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), who with the exception of a two-year break in the 1960s has served in the House since 1949, to one-term Reps. Vince Snowbarger (R-Kan.), Mike Pappas (R-N.J.), Bill Redmond (R-N.M.) and Jay Johnson (D-Wis.), all of whom were defeated for reelection.

    In the last few weeks, it frequently has been said that a presidential impeachment and a declaration of war are the two most solemn votes a member of Congress can cast. But neither the only previous presidential impeachment vote, of Andrew Johnson in 1868, nor any of the nation's formal declarations of war was made by a lame-duck Congress. The closest parallel appears to be the Dec. 2, 1954, vote by a lame-duck Senate to censure one of its own -- Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).

    But Ronald M. Peters Jr., director of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma, said "there is no question of the legitimacy" of a vote on impeachment by a lame-duck lawmaker.

    "I don't have any qualms about it," Snowbarger said of his impending vote for impeachment. "I'm obviously aware that it's an unusual situation, but I'm the congressman elected from my district until January and any business that comes before Congress before then is my responsibility."

    The flock of 40 remained scattered yesterday. Some shunned the spartan Departing Member Center to work out of the Capitol Hill offices of colleagues. Some remained in their districts, racing to complete final tasks in their district offices.

    Rep. Jon D. Fox (R-Pa.), defeated for reelection, was flying back from Israel with Clinton. Rep. Rick A. White (R-Wash.), who lost his reelection bid to a Democrat who broadcast television ads criticizing the impeachment inquiry, was in Paris.

    Callers to the Las Vegas district office of Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who lost an extraordinarily close contest to Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), were told by a recorded voice that "because of the election, our office is now closed and staff is unavailable. If you would like to leave your opinion for the congressman regarding the impeachment hearings, please press two. He will not be able to reply back to you regarding your opinion but he is taking a tally." Ensign's whereabouts yesterday were not known.

    As the showdown on the House floor approached, there was little evidence to suggest that the votes of the 40 departing members would be any less partisan than those of other lawmakers. Democrats Fazio and Skaggs, for example, said they will oppose impeachment.

    "I am really appalled at the degree to which we can't communicate with each other," Fazio said. "The two parties seem to be frozen in place. The party bases dominate the dialogue and the great centrist majority on occasions like this doesn't get heard."

    "I think most members, and particularly the lame ducks, will be making the proverbial vote of conscience," Fazio added. "Certainly there is little or no political constraint except members do care about how they are seen by their colleagues."

    Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.), who lost his bid for Senate, spoke with forceful certitude about his plans to vote for impeachment. He said he and other House Republicans who were first elected in 1994 came to Washington determined to balance the budget. "We got that done," Neumann said. "This may be a fitting way to say that America is about more than money and a strong economy. Values and principles and integrity count."

    But another Wisconsin lawmaker, Jay Johnson, the only House Democrat defeated for reelection, is not nearly so certain about his vote. He said he probably will remain undecided until he hears the floor debate. He has begun to reread John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," which includes a chapter on the Johnson impeachment. This will be "a crucially important vote," Johnson said, but it comes amid other pressing matters in his life.

    "It's kind of strange," he said. "Here I am with a very big vote and we want to close this thing down with a lot of dignity, but I also have to find work."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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