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Poll: Most Oppose Continuing Trial

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  • By Dan Balz and Claudia Deane
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 31, 1999; Page A21

    Small majorities of Americans oppose the Senate's decisions to continue the impeachment trial of President Clinton and take testimony from witnesses, and while the public remains firmly against removing Clinton from office, 60 percent said the Senate should censure him for his conduct, according to a new Washington Post poll.

    As the Senate struggles to end the impeachment debate, nearly three in four surveyed said they are concerned the trial will last longer than necessary, with just one in four saying they fear the Senate will not be able to examine all the important issues.

    The new poll also shows the public thinks Congress has been affected by the impeachment debate more than has Clinton. A majority of those surveyed (56 percent) said Congress's ability to work effectively has been harmed by the impeachment debate, while the same percentage said Clinton's ability to serve effectively as president has not been affected.

    The poll showed Republicans and Democrats sharply divided on many of the key issues in the impeachment trial. Those partisan divisions help to explain why Republicans have pushed to call witnesses in the face of general disapproval by the public.

    For example, four in five Republicans support the Senate vote not to dismiss the charges against Clinton last week, while an identical proportion of Democrats disapprove of the decision. Four in five Republicans favor calling witnesses, while three in four Democrats oppose them.

    The Washington Post poll is based on random telephone interviews with 1,013 adults nationwide and was conducted from Thursday through yesterday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

    Fears of an impeachment backlash against their party have motivated Senate GOP leaders to seek to end the trial sooner than House Republican "managers" wish.

    On the question of whether voters would be more or less likely to support a senator who votes to convict Clinton, the poll found that 27 percent said they would be more likely to oppose such a senator and 21 percent said they would be more likely to support such a senator. The rest said impeachment would make no difference in their vote.

    Asked whether they would support a Democrat or Republican in a race for the House, 49 percent of those registered voters surveyed said Democrat while 39 percent said Republican. That 10-point margin is statistically about the same as it was just before the election last November when the Republicans lost five House seats.

    Clinton's approval rating remains strong, with 65 percent of Americans saying they like the way he is handling his job. A majority of those surveyed (54 percent) also said they now have a favorable impression of Clinton, an increase since last fall when less than half the public held that view.

    In general, the poll – and interviews with some of those surveyed – underscored the consistency of attitudes in the country on the issue that has dominated the agenda in Washington for the past year.

    "I personally feel like it's a total waste of the taxpayers' money," said Michelle Stark, 43, of Washington, W.Va, who voted for Republican Robert J. Dole in the 1996 presidential election. "Clinton's immoral, we know that. ... But . . . he really hasn't been a bad president. Let him finish up his time and get out of there."

    "I would like to see them stop," said Nancy Hodges, 48, a Democrat from Las Vegas. "Now that it has gone this far, I think they just need to dismiss the whole thing. He probably does need to be punished because he did lie under oath."

    But Al Sterling, 40, of Chesapeake Beach, Md., said he supports the decision of the Senate to depose former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, attorney Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. "I think it needs to go until they get it done and done correctly as prescribed by the Constitution," said Sterling, a Republican. "I don't think the whole country is going to come to a complete stop because they're doing this."

    Jeff Decker, 35, of South Haven, Mich., agreed. "I think it should go the distance, within reason," said Decker, a Republican. "Don't drag it out by trying to stretch loopholes and all that stuff, but get to the bottom of it." He urged Republicans to "vote their conscience" rather than worry about polls.

    The public registered general disapproval with the major developments in the trial last week. More than half of those surveyed (55 percent) disapproved of the Senate's failure to dismiss the charges against Clinton and 52 percent opposed the decision to call witnesses. But 56 percent said this testimony should be made public.

    One third (33 percent) supported a vote to convict and remove the president, but 60 percent said he should be censured by the Senate. About the same percentage said they would be upset if he were removed.

    About half of those surveyed (48 percent) said the country would be worse off if Clinton were removed, while just 15 percent said the country would be better off. But in the wake of last week's dismissal vote that showed the Senate is far short of the 67 votes needed to convict, there was a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans (79 percent) who believe Clinton will stay in office.

    At the same time, there was a decreasing percentage of Americans who said they would be angry if the president were removed. Around the time of the House impeachment votes, 35 percent said they would be angry if that happened; in the latest poll 23 percent said they would be angry, with most of the change coming among Democrats.

    The Senate gets higher marks than the House for fairness, despite several party-line votes last week. About half the public (49 percent) said the House proceedings were fair, while 46 percent said they were unfair. But a small majority (53 percent) credited senators with conducting a fair trial, compared to 39 percent who said it has been unfair.

    "I thought the House, particularly the Judiciary Committee, was a real disaster," said Tobey Winters, 54, a Democrat from Simsbury, Conn. But he said senators "are doing their best" to be more civil. "I think they recognize that their reputations, as well as the president's, somewhat hinge on the way this is handled," he added.

    On balance, the Republicans in Congress have a somewhat more negative image than Democrats. Asked about Republicans, 30 percent of those surveyed said they had an unfavorable impression while 22 percent said it was favorable. Among Democrats, the impressions were 26 percent favorable and 23 percent negative. In both cases, roughly half of those surveyed offered no opinion.

    The partisan divisions over how the trial should end remain stark. Democrats overwhelmingly oppose conviction, while most Republicans favor removing Clinton. Among independents, two in three oppose conviction.

    Sizable majorities of Democrats and independents said they are more worried that the trial will drag on too long than they are that it will end prematurely. But even a bare majority of Republicans said they worried about how long the trial may last.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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