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The Doubts of a Fervent Conservative

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  • By Paul Blustein
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A40

    Of the traits that make House members likely to vote for impeachment, Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) appears to have a full list: He is fervently conservative. He hails from a heavily Republican district. He revels in bashing President Clinton.

    Yet Souder, 48, has contended for weeks that impeachment is not warranted by evidence that has emerged so far against the president. Yesterday afternoon, after meeting with several House Republicans seeking to win him over, he softened his opposition, declaring himself undecided. But his reluctance to arrive at the same conclusion as his fellow conservatives has evoked fury and incredulity in GOP ranks.

    "I know he's getting killed by his constituents; a lot of them are calling this office," said John Williams, an aide to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). "They want to know: 'What's wrong with Mark Souder? Isn't he supposed to be a conservative?'

    "But Mark has always done what Mark wants to do," Williams added. "He acts on what he thinks is right."

    That conclusion seemed hard to dispute as Souder (rhymes with "chowder") stared earnestly into a television camera in a Capitol Hill studio Tuesday afternoon and, in a voice tinged with a Hoosier twang, read a statement for broadcast in his northeast Indiana congressional district. On a day when momentum for impeachment was rising inexorably, Souder stuck with his position against it.

    "No matter how morally outraged I am by this president -- and he has insulted many, if not most, of my deeply held beliefs -- the action of impeachment must be reviewed for its implications for our system of government beyond this president," he said.

    Urging Resignation

    He noted that he has been deeply involved in investigating wrongdoing by the administration in areas such as campaign fund-raising and has been calling for Clinton's resignation since February because of the "terrible moral example" the president set. But "we have not proven impeachable offenses," he said, although he said he would continue to consider any new information or arguments.

    Later, in his office, Souder -- a voracious reader, especially of history -- pulled out some of the books that he said have reinforced his convictions, including one about Alexander Hamilton and another about Andrew Johnson's near removal from the White House. He has also been reading historians' accounts of Watergate, which he said far outstrips Clinton's proven transgressions.

    "I mean, the contrast -- there's Nixon [on the White House tape recordings], saying, 'Go to the Brookings Institution, and clean out the safe,' " he said.

    Still, Souder said he would love to find grounds to satisfy his view of what the founding fathers required for overturning the results of an election. And yesterday, he was looking hard for them after being visited Tuesday night by two Judiciary Committee Republicans from his home state, Reps. Ed Pease and Steve Buyer.

    Vintage Behavior

    At their urging, Souder spent a good part of yesterday afternoon combing through documents the Judiciary panel collected for its impeachment hearings, including some that were not released to the public. He also met with the committee's chairman, Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), and chief counsel, David P. Schippers.

    "I'm going to sit on the floor, listen to all the debate, and make up my mind at the end," Souder said in a brief interview as he headed into a late afternoon meeting, adding that he was "very upset" at some of what he was seeing and hearing. "I'm not convinced it's impeachable yet. But I'm going to listen to everything that's out there."

    All this is vintage behavior for Souder, a deeply devout evangelical Christian who has always salted his conservatism with a heavy dose of iconoclasm.

    Elected in 1994, he joined a band of conservatives so resistant to compromise with the White House that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) derided them as the "perfectionist caucus."

    In the 1995-96 budget showdown, he held out for bigger spending cuts. He also joined one other House Republican in voting against the balanced-budget amendment on the grounds that it failed to include a provision requiring congressional supermajorities to raise taxes.

    While such moves endeared him to folks back home, his stance on impeachment is prompting local Republican leaders to warn that he is courting a backlash and endangering his career. Souder's district, a flat agricultural area with a 93 percent white population and Fort Wayne as its hub, was previously represented by former vice president Dan Quayle and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), for whom Souder worked as an aide.

    In the 1996 election, the district voted 53 percent for Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole, versus 36 percent for Clinton. Souder won reelection with 63 percent last month.

    Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party, said he has been "inundated" with complaints over Souder's position, including three from people who said they may run against him in a primary or recruit someone to do so.

    "Mark Souder is without question one of the most principled individuals in government," Shine said. "But now he must vote not on his principles, but what the substantial majority of his constituents think, and that is to impeach President Clinton."

    At WOWO, a Fort Wayne radio station, talk show host Pat White said callers "went ballistic . . . the phones melted down" last week when he pointed out Souder's opposition to impeachment. "It's beyond anything I've witnessed in 30 years of being in the broadcast business," White said.

    Fund-Raising Fears

    Souder said Tuesday he doubts a vote against impeachment would cause him to lose a primary, "but I'm not taking anything for granted. What is most clear to me is that it will impact fund-raising." Last Friday, he met for two hours with his campaign finance committee, which unanimously urged him to vote for impeachment, as has nearly his entire staff.

    "It's unnerving," Souder admitted, to read and hear threats by voters and supporters. And one of the most difficult parts, he said, is the effect on his "conflict-averse" wife, Diane.

    "Now it's not the Democrats attacking me," he said. "It's my friends, it's people who gave me money, it's people who stood with us when nobody thought I could win the [1994] primary. . . . For her, this is a nightmare."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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