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GOP Moderates Take Stage

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Lorraine Adams
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page A11

    The topic was witnesses. The atmosphere was rushed. The television was live. The questioner was incredulous: After so much of Monica, Betty and Linda, what is left to know? Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) swallowed once, kept her face fitted into sunny neutrality and gave it a whirl: A search for truth demands witnesses, she said.

    When the Senate takes its crucial vote today on whether to subpoena witnesses in President Clinton's impeachment trial, Collins and New England's other three GOP "moderates" will be in the thick of the debate.

    The four Yankees frequently serve as a gauge of whether the Senate GOP is in trouble on a controversial issue, and when the minority Democrats are on the prowl for votes to upset the Republican apple cart, the moderate camp is the first stop on their shopping trip.

    With momentum shifting against them yesterday, it began to look like the Democrats may not be able to pick up enough help in New England to forestall the deposition of at least a limited number of witnesses: Collins will likely be a "yes" on witnesses, as will Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who confessed yesterday to a "heavy tilt" toward witnesses.

    Still, Democrats could get help from Sen. Olympia S. Snowe (R-Maine), who has "never been convinced" of the need for witnesses, and from Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), who has changed his mind at least twice in the past week and was leaning against at last report. He remains officially "undecided."

    Even though the four New Englanders are often simply coveted for their votes, they also find themselves cast in the role of mediators in partisan disputes. It was Snowe who told the Republicans earlier this month to reach out to the Democrats one last time, in hopes of forging a bipartisan resolution on the conduct of the trial. They did, and it worked.

    It was Chafee who stood up in a Republican conference meeting yesterday and presented a six-point draft plan to depose witnesses in as short a time as possible, initiating a conversation that could end depositions by the beginning of next week.

    And it is Collins who, even as she has fought for witnesses to illuminate the obstruction-of-justice count against Clinton, has tried to get the Senate to dismiss the perjury count as "a difficult case to make." She has also floated a plan for the Senate to vote on a "finding of fact" that says Clinton committed certain offenses but does not throw him out of office.

    It is unclear whether their colleagues on either side of the aisle appreciate their efforts, but none of the four senators has a record of being cowed into submission or dissuaded from taking contrary stands. Unlike the House moderates, who often go along with the Republicans' conservative leadership, the Senate crowd usually does what it wants.

    Jeffords was snubbed for years in the House after being the lone Republican to vote against President Ronald Reagan's tax cut in 1981. But he was singing at GOP fund-raisers with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as one of the four "Singing Senators," even as he opposed Lott on campaign finance.

    Collins, 46, is perhaps the chattiest of the four, a first-termer whose penchant for devising original bits of impeachment-related legislation has made her a regular on the talk show circuit. She is the only one of the moderates not up for reelection in 2000.

    Collins learned the politics of dissent as a staff member for 12 years for then-Rep. and Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), now Clinton's defense secretary. She remembers opening Cohen's mail in 1974, when her boss was the lone Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to join Democrats in demanding that President Richard M. Nixon turn over the Watergate tapes.

    Collins is not sure how her pro-witness position plays politically back in Maine, but she said she has accepted it could be unpopular. "There will be people who will be very unhappy no matter what I do," she said. "But one thing I do know. When I'm in Maine, people tell me what they think -- but then they tell me to do what I think is right."

    In a state where the Republican Party is pro-choice and the governor is an independent (the only one in the nation), hewing to one's own heart is a political tradition. Collins is a confirmed moderate Republican of the New England genre -- a fiscal conservative, a social moderate.

    "There is a real tradition of neighbor helping neighbor, which has shaped some of the positions that are moderate," said Dave Lackey, Snowe's press secretary. "Collins and Snowe are very much in Maine's mainstream."

    Snowe, 51, a former House member and spouse of former Maine governor John McKernan, is also a first-termer, not as obviously extroverted as Collins. She, too, has been a fixture on talk shows and earned instant celebrity on Sunday when she said on "Meet the Press" that she wanted to make sure that the trial "doesn't turn into the 'Jerry Springer Show.' "

    She also said she wouldn't vote to dismiss the trial, because "never in the history of impeachment in the United States Senate" had this ever happened. This, according to Lackey, is almost certainly true, for Snowe has spent most of the past two months reading up on impeachment. She calls it "immersing myself in the historical backdrop."

    Chafee, 76, is the moderates' elder statesman, a former governor of Rhode Island and former secretary of the Navy before joining the Senate in 1982. He has been pro-witness since the opening of the impeachment trial, saying yesterday that the House prosecutors should pick "who they want." He is something of a mentor to Collins, with whom he had dinner earlier this week.

    Chafee also comes from one of the most Democratic states in the country (Clinton beat Robert J. Dole by 33 points there in 1996), and his mail is running 60-40 pro-Clinton. Democrats regularly brand him as a crypto-right-winger before losing to him in elections.

    Jeffords, 64, is from a state that Clinton won by 22 points, but Brandeis University political scientist Garrison Nelson, a longtime observer of Vermont politics, says he "probably has the freest vote on impeachment of all the New England moderates."

    Indeed, he is perhaps the last liberal Republican in Congress, a lawmaker who has been odd man out so often that Clinton once called him "my favorite Republican." Unlike the other GOP Yankees, he has not spent much time as a talking head recently, for although he is a Harvard-educated lawyer, "he has never been a good sound bite," Nelson said.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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