Some Area Republicans Undecided
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A1
They represent a cross section of rural and urban America, north and south, black and white, from rustic Shenandoah Valley dairy farms to downtown Baltimore rowhouses. And the lawmakers whose districts ring Washington also span the polarized views in the House about whether to impeach President Clinton.
After 11 months of scandal, covered nonstop in a capital media market made up of 6 million residents, their positions have hardened into predictable patterns. Those opinions spring from a mix of district sentiments, personalities and politics nearly as diverse as the House as a whole.
While some members of both parties are insisting that they have not made up their minds about perhaps the most important vote they'll ever make, political observers believe without exception that there is more high drama in a soup commercial than in how local delegation members will vote: Most of the region's Democrats are expected to oppose the impeachment of Clinton. And most of the Republicans, no surprise, are expected to favor impeachment.
But there are some wild cards. The two with the most to think about, politically speaking, are Reps. Constance A. Morella (R), who represents predominantly Democratic Montgomery County, and Thomas M. Davis III (R), who represents a middle-class swing district anchored by Fairfax County.
While most local members have relatively safe seats, these two more moderate Republicans face complicated balancing acts because their districts are more liberal and hence more supportive of Clinton than the national Republican Party. On the other hand, if they vote against impeachment, "they will be seen by their base as wimping out," said Keith Appell, a GOP consultant from Virginia.
Morella, who has not said how she plans to vote, faces a situation common to northeastern Republicans. It's a familiar balancing act for the six-term member, one of a handful of Republicans who voted against Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for speaker last year but who backed the open-ended impeachment inquiry on Clinton this year.
"If she votes against impeachment, she's inviting a Republican primary opponent," said elections analyst Charles E. Cook Jr. "If she votes for impeachment, she creates a problem for herself in the general election."
Morella's case may be complicated because of her interest in running in 2000 for the Senate seat now held by Paul S. Sarbanes (D). She has to consider not just how voters will react in Montgomery County, analysts said, but in a statewide Republican primary (controlled by more conservative voters) and a general election (controlled by moderate-to-liberal voters).
Davis, who also is not commenting on the vote, faces similar issues. While his swing district is friendlier to Republicans it narrowly voted for George Bush for president in 1992 it did favor Clinton over Republican Robert J. Dole 48 percent to 46 percent in 1996.
But Davis is also in debt to some of the GOP's most vocal impeachment backers. He was elected chairman last month of the National Republican Congressional Committee with the support of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who has been leading the House charge for impeachment. And with statewide ambitions, Davis must also stay in the good graces of the state GOP's conservative wing, which is watching his actions on impeachment closely.
"I'd expect all [Northern Virginia Republicans] to vote for articles of impeachment," said Chuck Cunningham, political director of the Chesapeake-based Christian Coalition and a former Fairfax Republican who has crossed swords with Davis.
Both Appell and Cunningham said that Republicans in Maryland and Virginia who oppose impeachment would immediately open themselves up to a primary challenge. Both noted that a New York Republican named Jim Pierce has already declared his candidacy against Rep. Amo Houghton (R), who has said he will oppose impeachment and was charged by Pierce of betraying conservatives.
Appell, who lives in Davis's district, said: "Davis might be able to withstand [such a primary challenge] because his district is more of a swing district than a Republican district."
Still, people close to Davis say he is not being pressured by the GOP on the vote and that members are free to vote their conscience. Republican consultant and Davis adviser J. Kenneth Klinge cautioned against drawing simplistic conclusions about individual districts. National polls reveal little about preferences in Fairfax County, he said, adding, "People in the D.C. area pay attention to what's going around in town on a far, far higher level than people outside the Beltway."
Some members, most notably Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, have future, rather than present, political considerations. Ehrlich has expressed an interest in running for the Senate in 2000 or for governor in 2002 in a state dominated by Democrats.
On Friday, Ehrlich said he plans to vote to impeach based on his belief that Clinton's actions seriously subverted justice.
While he's probably safe in his district, his vote on impeachment could be problematic with many voters if he tries to run for statewide office. On the other hand, a vote against impeachment would give a primary opponent ammunition in the future.
"If a Republican has higher ambitions in Maryland, they're probably thinking long and hard about what they are going to do," said Carol Arscott, a GOP political consultant. "It's a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one."
But Ehrlich said: "In my view, if you were to allow polls to influence you on a vote so fundamentally important, you wouldn't deserve to even think about running for the Senate."
Yesterday, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), whose district covers parts of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, announced that he would vote against impeachment, saying Clinton's offenses "do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses."
He was especially critical of the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee's handling of the impeachment investigation. Cardin, one of the members of the subcommittee that handled the ethics investigation of Gingrich, said "the difference is we had a sense of fairness" that the Judiciary Committee has not had.
Like Cardin, Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D) represents a largely Democratic, pro-Clinton district, including a large swath of Prince George's County and about a quarter of Montgomery County. He has been one of Clinton's most vocal supporters and plans to oppose impeachment. The district is about 54 percent African American. But he said support for Clinton is overwhelming among whites as well.
Many people in the district have very strong religious views, but they "are views that emphasize tolerance and forgiveness instead of those that emphasize punishment," Wynn said.
Adjacent to Wynn's district is one represented by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D). The district, redrawn in 1992, includes outer portions of Prince George's and several southern Maryland counties. While it's largely Democratic, many of its voters in the southern portion are quite conservative.
Hoyer could not be reached for comment on Friday, but his spokesman said he plans to vote against impeachment. "He finds what the president did disappointing and indefensible, but he doesn't think it rises to the level of impeachment," said spokesman Chris McCannell.
To some extent, Hoyer's district presents some of the challenges faced by Democrats in southern, conservative areas. But several political observers said he would be politically safe voting against impeachment.
Across the Potomac River in Alexandria and Arlington, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) also holds a safe Democratic seat, one that gave Clinton a 15-percentage-point 1996 victory.
Moran could have afforded to back the president unquestioningly based on that, but he chose to condemn what he called Clinton's "unforgivable" lies. He will not vote to impeach the president, but wants to censure him if the GOP leadership allows such a vote.
"Republicans have failed in their mission to show the facts are impeachable offenses and Democrats failed to exonerate him," Moran said. "What we're left is the need for a compromise that brings the country together."
In McLean, 18-year-incumbent Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) has said little about the president's troubles. He has twice called for him to resign, and added last month that censure would set a "dangerous precedent" because it is not in the Constitution.
Wolf's safely Republican district reaches west through the Shenandoah Valley to West Virginia; it gave Clinton barely a third of its vote. Constituents have called "overwhelmingly" for impeachment, a spokeswoman said.
Finally, Rep. Herbert H. Bateman (R) of Newport News, whose Tidewater and Northern Neck district includes Fredericksburg and parts of Stafford County, has said he is undecided on impeachment. But he called for Clinton's resignation this fall, and his district's more conservative and Navy-dominated precincts have never embraced Clinton.
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