A Battle for the Middle
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 10, 1998; Page A01
House Republican leaders yesterday struggled to maintain the momentum to impeach President Clinton, as Democrats worked to develop support for an acceptable censure resolution that could include an admission of guilt by the president and a hefty fine.
Apparently fearing defections before a vote next week on articles of impeachment, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) sent a letter to the entire House, pleading with members not to make a public commitment on impeachment until his committee has completed its work.
"I ask that you withhold judgment in this most important matter which may soon come before the full House," Hyde wrote. "I would be more than happy to discuss this matter personally on the telephone with you if you so desire."
Meanwhile the Christian Coalition finished delivering what its head, Randy Tate, said were "hundreds of thousands" of pro-impeachment petitions to Capitol Hill, as the two sides mobilized for the final days of a historic battle over the future of Clinton's presidency.
Only one more Republican publicly announced his opposition to impeachment yesterday. Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) said he favored censuring the president, rather than impeaching him. His announcement brought to six the number of Republicans on record against impeachment.
But several other Republicans already appeared to be leaning in that direction. An aide to Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) suggested that the Montgomery County lawmaker was inching toward a position in support of censure as an alternative to impeachment – if Clinton cooperates.
White House officials and their Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were focused intensively on 30 or so Republicans, many from the Northeast, whom they regard as potential opponents of impeachment.
The list was developed during a Monday meeting between senior White House officials and aides to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). The president's supporters have organized a targeted effort to reach moderate Republicans one-on-one, through friendly colleagues or powerful constituents who will make the case quietly against impeachment.
In addition, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) has been deputized to keep defections among Democrats to a minimum, and senior Democratic aides on Capitol Hill said they believed the number would be no more than five to seven.
The efforts by Republican leaders to hold their troops in line marked a shift in the mood on Capitol Hill, although it was not clear how much the numbers have actually changed. Just days ago, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said the votes were there to impeach the president, although he cautioned that the numbers could shift before the final vote.
Yesterday, Democrats attempted to bolster the impression that the tide was moving in their direction. But the feverish behind-the-scenes activity suggested that Clinton's fate remains in the balance.
"My sense is that it's still very fluid, that there hasn't been much of a movement away from impeachment," a senior House Republican said. But he warned that time may be on Clinton's side.
Republicans said yesterday a few moderates may announce their support for impeachment in the next day or two.
If Clinton hopes to avoid becoming the second president in history to be impeached by the House, however, the price could be costly – both to his place in history and his wallet, said Democrats working to draft an acceptable censure resolution.
Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, a Republican who was part of a panel assembled by the president's lawyers, yesterday proposed the outlines of a censure package that would include a written acknowledgment of wrongdoing by Clinton and a fine.
A sampling of House Republicans who are considered targets of White House efforts to block impeachment returned a mixed verdict on the effectiveness of Clinton's defense team. Some members suggested the presentation had heightened questions about whether Clinton's transgressions were worthy of impeachment, while others said they still wanted to hear more from the president before making up their minds.
There was no doubt about the audience the president's lawyers had in mind yesterday. "My goal is, as an advocate – which is what I am today – is to reach the people whose minds I want to change, and that's what I was trying to do today," White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff told the Judicary Committee.
But if there was the beginning of a wholesale shift away from impeachment among moderate Republicans, it was not evident by the time he concluded his presentation early last evening.
Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio) said he was pleased by the tone of the White House lawyers. "While I haven't watched much, I understand the tenor of it has dramatically changed," he said. "But that's all from the White House presenters. I haven't heard anything from the president to show that he personally has changed his tune."
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who remains undecided, said he was unimpressed by the White House defense. "I thought the president's attorney did a horrible job," he said of the defense offered on Tuesday.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said: "I've seen very little defense. In essence what I've seen is that conduct that could subject a president to indictment after he leaves office should not subject him to impeachment if it is unrelated to the formal carrying-out of his position. I don't really think that [is] a serious" argument.
White House officials, expressing satisfaction with their two-day defense, said they were gauging what steps to take next – and what Clinton's involvement should be. One aide said there was little sentiment last night for any kind of high-profile public statement about impeachment before Clinton leaves for the Middle East on Saturday.
Republican leaders intensified their efforts to persuade moderate Republicans not to defect – with particular emphasis on the New York, New Jersey and New England delegations. Hyde said he hoped to speak personally to members of the New York delegation and began working the phones actively yesterday.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said Hyde had called to congratulate him on the decision that will allow LaHood to preside over the impeachment debate on the House floor, but also had made a personal appeal. "He said, 'I hope you will pay close attention to what we're doing in the next few days,'‚" LaHood said in an interview.
The Christian Coalition petitions represented an escalation of conservative involvement in the impeachment debate.
"We believe that their voices should be heard on an issue of this magnitude and gravity," Tate said. He dismissed suggestions the White House could use their petitions as evidence of a right-wing conspiracy to drive Clinton out of office.
"You would be hard-pressed to make the argument it is part of anything more than allowing churchgoing Americans to be part of the process and to let members of Congress know that perjury is unacceptable behavior by the president of the United States," he said.
However, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council said that he and his supporters have shied away from any broad-based lobbying effort in favor of impeachment to avoid Democratic conspiracy allegations. "This is a time for members to read the Constitution and look at their obligations and vote accordingly," he said.
Republican fence-sitters said they were feeling extraordinary pressure as the impeachment vote neared.
An aide to Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) said that reaction at home has been "absolutely hellacious," with many constituents and contributors angrily demanding to know why he hasn't made up his mind yet.
Within the past 24 hours, Bilbray has received more than 1,000 e-mail messages from constituents, with the vast majority demanding that he support impeachment. "It's the people you think are your friends who surprise you most," the aide said.
Ken Johnson, press secretary to Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), said his office had received "thousands of angry phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails" after suggestions that Tauzin, who has not declared his position, might favor censuring Clinton.
Diaz-Balart said the calls and messages from his constituents had shifted in recent days. "It used to be pretty much 50-50," he said. "It's turned into 75-25 pro-impeachment."
With the vote still close, Clinton's allies continued to promote censure rather than impeachment, but struggled to find terms that would satisfy Republican moderates.
Yesterday started with what, at first blush, seemed like a virtual advertisement by the White House that Clinton wants to be censured and fined as an alternative to impeachment when Weld, unprompted, raised the idea of a monetary penalty during his presentation.
But White House officials said Weld's proposal was not made on Clinton's behalf – and that White House lawyers had no idea he was going to bring up the subject. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said only that "we will look at, and will listen" to censure proposals made "in good faith." He declined to say whether a monetary fine was acceptable to Clinton.
This hedging, Clinton advisers said, was itself a reflection of one difficulty in bringing a censure alternative to fruition – the fear that Clinton's embrace of the idea might make it less palatable to Republicans.
But there are other problems. One is the absence of an organized political bloc with whom either the White House or House Democratic leaders can negotiate a censure resolution.
Another obstacle remains the prospect that the House GOP leadership will not allow a censure resolution to compete with impeachment articles on the full House floor. Democrats fear Hyde's willingness to allow a censure vote in committee, where it likely will fail, might be used as an argument against allowing a vote on the floor.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, John F. Harris and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.
© Copyright The Washington Post Company