For Support in House
By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
President Clinton and Vice President Gore are personally leading an extensive last-minute lobbying effort to urge wavering House Democrats to vote against the Republican plan for an open-ended impeachment inquiry when it hits the floor Thursday, White House officials said yesterday.
But with passage of the Republican measure all but certain and the only major question how many Democrats will defect, the White House did not appear to be succeeding in its efforts to convince lawmakers. In closed-door meetings yesterday, congressional Democrats said, the party revealed its deep divisions over how to vote Thursday even as some influential moderate Democrats announced publicly their plans to support the GOP measure.
A day after the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to launch the first impeachment proceedings since the Watergate hearings that led to Richard M. Nixon's resignation, Democratic leaders acknowledged that they will not present a similarly united front on the House floor. With the midterm elections only four weeks away, many of their members in competitive races believe they must cast a vote in favor of continuing the investigation into Clinton's conduct, even if they have not concluded that it warrants impeachment.
But while Republicans appear prepared to support the Judiciary Committee proposal for an unrestricted inquiry adopted almost word for word from the Watergate measure, Democrats will offer one of two alternatives, both of which would limit the scope of the inquiry to the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. One proposal has a deadline of Nov. 25, while the other has no time limit.
Democratic leaders are publicly calling tomorrow's balloting "a vote of conscience," although leadership sources acknowledged yesterday that they are counting heads and that as many as 50 of the 206 Democratic members could defect. The White House hopes to limit that number so it can charge that Republicans are embarked on a partisan witch hunt against a popular president.
White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart yesterday accused Republicans of using tomorrow's vote "to embarrass the president" and gain in the midterm elections. Behind the scenes, Clinton has been calling a handful of lawmakers virtually daily, White House officials said, while Gore also makes calls, concentrating on members he knows well or who the White House vote-counting operation believes are in need of special attention.
The officials said the administration is trying to walk a fine line between argument that Clinton has done nothing that merits impeachment and outright advocacy. Judging from the comments after a two-hour Democratic Caucus meeting yesterday, however, the White House strategy is not working.
"If there is a common thread in this caucus, it's Clinton's behavior and how he's dealt with this," one leadership source said. Said another, "Liberals felt the president was too preoccupied with saving his own hide and not ours," while conservatives and moderates told their colleagues they wished the White House would "get off their backs" and stop calling constantly to ask for support.
Chicago liberal Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D) said that the president's high poll numbers did not excite the caucus, because they "are not translating into Democratic victories in the fall. We need a strategy that helps him and us," Jackson added. "The present strategy doesn't include us."
At a meeting Monday with Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), about 50 moderates and conservatives protested what moderate Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) called the leadership's "full-court press" to contain the defections on the Thursday vote.
"Why are we falling on our swords for a vote we're going to lose?" asked Moran, arguing that the strategy was short-sighted. "I don't think it serves the party's long-term interest. I don't think it serves the national interest." Moran said in an interview yesterday that he plans to vote for the Republican resolution, as well as the Democratic alternative.
During the caucus meeting it was clear that there was no consensus, and considerable anguish: "We're all over the place," said Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), one of only two House Democrats who has called for Clinton's resignation. Like Moran, Taylor said he will vote for the Republican resolution.
So did Texas conservative Reps. Charles W. Stenholm (D) and Jim Turner (D), both of whom are in tough reelection races. Stenholm warned that voting only for a narrow inquiry could prove risky for Democrats just before the elections. "Just in case there is something nobody has heard about that comes up between now and November 3rd, I could be accused of covering up, so why do that?" Stenholm asked.
Turner said he thought a narrow inquiry was "a reasonable position," but since the Democratic alternative was a certain loser, he would probably also vote for the Republican resolution, because the allegations that the president lied under oath and obstructed justice in the Paula Jones civil lawsuit are "a very serious matter that deserves an inquiry."
White House officials said their lobbying efforts begin each day with a meeting in which aide Steve Ricchetti passes out names to a team of callers, who include deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta; Greg Craig, the new quarterback of the administration's effort in Congress; and senior Gore aides Ronald Klain and Kay Cass Stevens.
"We are certainly expressing our view that we don't think this approaches impeachability, nor do we think what the Republicans voted out of the Judiciary Committee is fair or nonpartisan," said Lockhart. Another aide involved in the White House's outreach campaign said "lobbying" was not the right word to describe the daily outreach: "We are not twisting arms, breaking kneecaps, or otherwise forcing people to take positions they would not otherwise take."
For ammunition, the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill were touting private polls that they said showed that few of their members would be hurt by voting against the GOP impeachment resolution.
One of the polls was a survey for the Republican National Committee, but pollster Bill McInturff said the results were far less encouraging for the Democrats than they were claiming. He acknowledged that the survey showed Democratic voter intensity on the rise but suggested the Democrats were taking signs of modest progress and blowing them out of proportion. "A few weeks ago, Democrats weren't even in the game," he said. "Now they're in the park, but they're still not in the game. They're still in the left-field bleachers."
Although the White House and congressional Democrats differ on many fronts, they share the suspicion that the GOP leadership intends to use the impeachment inquiry as a grab bag for scandal, tossing in new investigations to keep the administration permanently on the defensive.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) did nothing to dampen such speculation during his weekly press briefing when he told reporters that the inquiry should have wide latitude to explore "patterns" of wrongdoing by the White House, regardless of whether the evidence is included in the report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"These are the things we need to know," Armey said. "This pattern is so well documented ... with respect to Ms. Lewinsky, many of us believe that there is reason to demonstrate or it could be demonstrable that that pattern was played out in the earlier things as well."
Inside the Democratic Caucus, the party's leaders yesterday turned to the Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee to lead the charge against the GOP, and they emphasized to their colleagues that the Republican impeachment resolution amounted to an endorsement of a partisan fishing expedition.
"Democrats can stand very comfortably as the reasonable arbiters of justice, as opposed to where the Republicans are," Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), a Judiciary member, told her colleagues. And if the constitutional argument did not make the case, several Judiciary members reminded other Democrats of naked political realities: "Those Democrats who vote for" the GOP plan "risk losing their base," Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) said. "I haven't seen a [Democratic] district where more than 37, 38 percent of voters were in favor of impeachment."
Even as the Judiciary Democrats tried to torpedo the GOP resolution, top committee staff members from both parties began to explore whether they could reach common ground on some areas of evidence, thereby shortening the inquiry process: "These discussions, which may ripen into negotiations, can get us to the heart of the matter," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the senior Judiciary Democrat.
Despite the talks, the committee has made few plans about how to proceed once the resolution passes and formal impeachment proceedings are authorized. Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) announced a Judiciary subcommittee hearing Oct. 22 on the "history and background of impeachment" but said it would not define "impeachable offenses" as the Democrats wish: "That has never been done before," Canady said.
And chief Republican investigator David P. Schippers did not predict what the committee might do next but said that at this point he did not necessarily plan to call scores of witnesses to testify. Democrats argue that several key figures in the scandal, including Lewinsky, should appear before the panel so members can evaluate their credibility.
"I don't know if anybody needs to be talked to at all," Schippers said, adding later that he was open to the idea of Lewinsky's testifying. "I think Mr. Starr and his staff did a magnificent job, and you can quote me on that."
Staff writers Dan Balz and John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company