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Shelby's Doubt Confounds GOP Faithful

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  • Congressional Profile: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)

  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 4, 1999; Page A8

    He's talking impeachment and witnesses and he's got that poker-face going, the unblinking eyes, the lips set in the sort of smile that doesn't commit him to anything much beyond being pleasant.

    But the Republican senator's words carry more cornpone sting than expected.

    "The Republican House managers, for whom I have the greatest respect, are fishing in a big pond and they're hoping to catch the big one," Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said a few days back. "But will they? Well, I don't know."

    He pauses just a beat: "I doubt it."

    Tall, phlegmatic, a party-switcher and seasoned partisan duelist, Shelby has slipped into the unexpected role of impeachment iconoclast. He's one of a half-dozen Republicans who have voiced substantial doubts about calling witnesses to the well of the Senate. And this solidly conservative politician – he flashes a 90 percent rating label from the American Conservative Union – has suggested that he just might vote against convicting President Clinton on the two impeachment charges: perjury and obstruction of justice.

    "I've believed all along that the threshold should be very high for impeachment, beyond a reasonable doubt," said Shelby, who is a lawyer. "I have some doubts and I still believe the burden is and should be on the prosecutors."

    Few Alabamans claim to have foreseen the senator's ambivalence. He's gone several rounds with Clinton, and is no political friend of Vice President Gore either. But Shelby said he views removal of the nation's elected leader as a far weightier business than mundane partisan swordsmanship.

    "People say, 'Well, it's not as though you are sending someone to prison,'‚" Shelby said. "But in some ways, you are doing something worse."

    That kind of caution has flustered some Republican Party faithful in Alabama, partisans for whom the question of presidential guilt long ago passed into the realm of shared certainty.

    From Alabama comes a rumbling chuckle over the phone line.

    "We thought Senator Shelby was pretty much an orthodox Alabama conservative," says William Stewart, chairman of political science at the University of Alabama. "But this is a surprise; and he's so vocal about it. It's got a lot of people very puzzled."

    It could be just the yak-yak of conservative Web heads and the heavy static of the talk show hosts, but Shelby's staff has recorded an earful of criticism. Mail, postal and Internet is running about 2 to 1 for impeachment.

    And a few callers talk darkly of saute»ing Shelby as well.

    "I think he's a traitor," 72-year-old Jeanne White told the Mobile Register. "I think he just wants to be on the winning side, regardless of what it costs."

    To which David Scott, an Republican district chairman who supports Shelby, adds: "He's surprised a lot of conservative Republicans and some question his party loyalty."

    Ask about this, and the 64-year-old Shelby offers a laconic demurral. He has not returned to Alabama since the impeachment trial began. (Overall, statewide polls show Alabamans near evenly split on the question of impeachment).

    "We're getting a lot of anti-letters, oh absolutely," he said. "But I don't think we ought to go by polls and letters."

    Shelby holds a strong hand in Alabama. He gained easy reelection in November. He's a native of Birmingham, the son of a steelworker and the onetime law partner of a conservative Democratic congressman who voted to impeach Richard M. Nixon. And Shelby's weathered the big switch in 1994, when he hopped from Blue Dog Democrat to red-blooded Republican.

    The switch shocked no one; Shelby had quarreled with Clinton, calling his 1993 economic plan "the taxman cometh" and denouncing the health care plan as "ill-conceived, unworkable and unwanted by the American people."

    "The truth was I felt much more comfortable as a Republican," said Shelby, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee.

    The senior senator is known as a powerful, if usually behind-the-scenes, player in Alabama state politics. He raises prodigious amounts of campaign money, and spreads the leftovers to favored congressional and state legislative candidates. This past fall, he earned points by riding a campaign train from one end of the state to the other with the embattled (and soon-to-be defeated) Gov. Fob James Jr. (R).

    "It's not sweet talk; his political and fund-raising pitch is pretty heavy-handed," said Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College and a pollster who works with the Democratic Party. "But he's a sly player who can do both ends well: He can get a piece of the labor and black vote, and draw conservative whites."

    And his ability to pluck pork for his home state calls to mind the late representative Mendell Rivers, of whom it was once said that if he got any more military hardware for his South Carolina district, it'd sink into the Atlantic. The NASA and missile-defense research facilities near Huntsville have benefited from Shelby's appropriating legerdemain.

    So it would be an exercise in political hyperbole to suggest that Shelby's impeachment fence-sitting imperils him. "I suspect this will be a distant memory by 2004," Stewart said.

    Although he's been a regular guest on television talk shows, Shelby has retreated into silence this week, declining to opine on the Monica S. Lewinsky and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. videos. He's spoken against a "finding of fact" on Clinton, and he favors an "up and down vote" on impeachment. But on the question of breaking with his party and voting not to convict, his counsel is still closed.

    "There's talk in the cloakroom but a lot of this is still ad hoc," he said recently. "I don't believe minds, including mine, are firmly set yet."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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