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Holdout Morella Could Be Key for Clinton

Rep. Connie Morella Rep. Connie Morella talks Tuesday with constituents in Bethesda, Md. (Gerry Martineau — The Post)

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  • By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A22

    Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) has been inundated with calls and e-mails about how she should vote when the issue of impeaching President Clinton hits the House floor tomorrow -- but her office said she will not declare her intentions until she casts her ballot.

    The Montgomery County lawmaker is the only Maryland representative who has not adopted her party's line. And as GOP moderates began to break for impeachment yesterday, political analysts said losing Morella's support would probably mean House defeat for Clinton defenders and new momentum for his ouster.

    "If someone like Connie Morella can resolve herself to the fact that impeachment is warranted, Bill Clinton's job becomes much tougher in the Senate," said Montgomery County resident Brad Coker, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia. "Congresswoman Morella has not been known as someone who will fall on her sword for her party."

    As one of the last GOP holdouts, she's paying the price in an avalanche of unsolicited advice.

    In addition to 13,000 e-mails that arrived over the weekend, her friend Geraldine A. Ferraro called Monday to urge her not to vote against the president. Her friend Richard G. Taylor, a Marylander who is a member of the Republican National Committee, implored her to support the impeachment effort. Presidential attorney David E. Kendall called her office in case she had any questions. And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) stopped her at a reception -- though he promised that despite prompting from the White House, he would not lobby her.

    Morella, 67, a former English professor, has tended the grant-rich, federal worker-dominated suburb northwest of Washington for 12 years. From the manicured National Institutes of Health in Bethesda to the booming National

    Institute of Standards and Technology up Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg, her wealthy, well-schooled district is bankrolled by the federal government.

    She has managed to please its mostly Democratic voters with her careful attention to constituent service -- and her independent streak. She has bucked the GOP on several issues, voting for gun control and abortion rights while opposing much of the party's Contract With America.

    The state GOP has voted unanimously for a resolution supporting impeachment and "strongly urged" all four House Republicans to back the measure. Still, Morella is from Clinton country, and calls to her office are running "60-40" against the president's ouster.

    "We haven't had time to read the e-mail," said her chief of staff, Bill Miller.

    Despite the partisan standoff, Republican leaders say Morella is getting a free hand from constituents and party leaders to vote her conscience -- even as she explores a Senate race in 2000.

    In light of several Republican setbacks in the state in November, Morella was "very encouraged" by her 60 percent showing, Miller said. "Nobody is better positioned as a Republican to do well statewide than Connie Morella."

    Morella hosted a reception Friday at the state GOP convention in Annapolis, testing support and the "winnability" of a challenge to four-term Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). With $280,000 in the bank, she expects to announce her decision within six months.

    There has been speculation that Sarbanes, a liberal heavyweight in the Senate minority, might not run again, either for health reasons or because the Democrats are no longer the majority party. Aides say, however, that he is gearing up for a fight and hosted his first significant fund-raiser Thursday with 100 longtime supporters.

    Morella's impending vote on impeachment doesn't seem to be affecting her possible Senate candidacy.

    "Look, I'm going to support Connie [in a Senate race] no matter" how she votes on impeachment, said RNC member Taylor.

    Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the state's unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee, and her running mate, Richard D. Bennett, the new Maryland Republican chairman, both support impeachment. But they say they will consider Morella a good Republican even if she votes against ousting Clinton. Even Rep. Robert L. Erlich Jr. (R-Md.), a potential rival for the Senate, doesn't fault her.

    "I don't think she gets the credit she deserves for holding the seat," he said, citing Montgomery County Democrats' 2 to 1 voter registration edge.

    Sharon S. Ford, 50, a dental hygienist from Damascus, opposes impeachment and is furious at those trying to oust the president. "They ought to hook them all to a lie detector and see if any pass the infidelity test, and then let them vote to impeach," she fumed.

    But she has a lot of respect for Morella and won't change her support no matter how the lawmaker votes. "She probably knows more about it than I do," she said.

    Hugh Harvey III, 43, a Republican and telecommunications contractor from Montgomery Village, wants Congress to oust the president.

    "The president is not above the law," Harvey said. "He lied. And he's just as accountable as the rest of us."

    But he is resigned to Morella's voting against impeachment and, like Ford, will support her regardless. "Look," he said, "I'd rather have a Republican in this seat than a Democrat" or a "radical" conservative GOP challenger.

    Whatever her vote, Miller said, Morella will be guided by "conscience, the Constitution and country," not political considerations. And based on past primaries, several county GOP leaders don't expect any serious challenges from conservatives if she strays from the party line.

    But Ralph G. Neas, Morella's Democratic opponent in November, accuses her of ducking the impeachment issue and failing to exert any leadership at a crucial time.

    "On tough and controversial national issues, too often Rep. Morella runs and hides from the press and her constituents," Neas said. "She should be playing a leadership role."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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