A Congressman's 'Toughest Vote'
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 1998; Page D1
Bart Stupak is in a feisty mood. His fellow Democrats are having a major closed-door meeting in a cavernous sanctum with dirty red carpet in a place called the Cannon House Office Building. Two microphones are set up on each side of the room so the rank and file can vent their concerns to the party's leadership. The discussion is about the impeachment of their president. Or more specifically, the process that will decide Bill Clinton's fate. Or more specifically, how many Democratic defectors are in their midst. Who will support the Republican plan for a full-scale, open-ended impeachment investigation? Who will back the Democratic alternative for a more limited, controlled inquiry? Who will stand squarely with the president and vote for neither?
It's a fascinating conversation, but Stupak decides to leave. He has heard plenty but hasn't seen enough. He's an attorney and former cop from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a self-described moderate conservative. He represents the second-largest congressional district east of the Mississippi, 27,000 square miles of rolling opinions about the president. He has a pesky Republican opponent nipping at his heels. He wants to inspect the Democratic proposal, to hold it in his hands, to take a yellow marker to it. But the language hasn't been finalized because Democrats can't agree on it. So he's out of there out into the cool air to deliberate alone, to perform those bittersweet moves he is known for among colleagues, the Dance of the Undecided.
He's got company on this vote, maybe 20, 30, 40, 50 who knows? other Democrats who are sitting on a wobbly fence. But hey, it's just Wednesday morning. There is still time to find oneself. Time to check faxes and e-mails from the district, assess the potential fallout for reelection campaigns, search one's soul for divine guidance, maybe even chat with the president.
By yesterday afternoon, the suspense would be over, the agony would come to an end: All but 10 of the 206 House Democrats voted first for the Democratic proposal. And when that was defeated, 31 Democrats voted for the Republican plan. Thus the first impeachment hearings since Watergate were launched an investigation with virtually no limits.
It's not easy to watch the president of your country, the head of your party, squirm, to watch him reduced to a tawdry joke, to know that he is not as wanted as he once was.
On the steps of the Cannon building on Wednesday morning, Stupak ponders this as he ponders his vote. There is nothing the president could tell him, he admits, that could possibly influence his decision. How sad is that?
"It's hard for him to be persuasive because he lied to us," Stupak says. "If he tells you anything, can you take it to the bank? You'd like to, but can you? He had seven months to repair the breach and he didn't. He may call you up and try to be persuasive, but it's too late for that now."
White House aide Lisa Kountoupes stopped by Stupak's office early last week carrying a load of questions. What have you been hearing about the president in your district? Do constituents want impeachment, a resignation, censure? How's the reelection campaign going? And by the way, Democrats are working on an alternative to the Republicans' unrestricted impeachment probe. Could the congressman support a proposal that would put a time limit on the proceedings and confine them to the Monica Lewinsky matter?
Stupak's chief of staff, Scott Schloegel, shared the good news first: The clamor for impeachment seems to have died down in the district, ever since release of the videotapes of Clinton's grand jury testimony. The tide may be turning in Clinton's favor. But the bad news: Stupak couldn't commit to the Democratic alternative until he could weigh it against the proposal from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).
Stupak is a good dancer, a notoriously good dancer. He is never a sure thing on big, tough votes. In 1993, after notifying the party leadership that he planned to vote against Clinton's budget and tax package, he changed his mind at the last minute and voted the party line. But he abandoned Clinton on NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill. He studies, he frets, he waits. He is a methodical hedger.
Stupak is 6 feet 2 and fit from working out in the House gym every morning. His eyes have this piercing intensity. He speaks in a kind of low monotone that asks you to please take him seriously. He's a "Yooper" from Menominee on the Wisconsin border, meaning his sentences have a broken, clipped finish, eh? Seen the movie "Fargo"? That's Stupak.
At a meeting with freshman Democrats Wednesday, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invoked Stupak in urging them to vote their consciences and not be frightened by the political consequences of their decisions.
The message was that Stupak had been hammered for his 1993 budget-and-tax vote but courageously defended it. Even though he had been written off for dead in his '94 reelection campaign, he had survived the onslaught of a well-financed Republican opponent who accused him of raising taxes on constituents. Democrats should think about that, the first lady explained, when they head to the House chamber to cast their votes on the impeachment inquiry. Vote your conscience and then go home and defend it.
It was the same message the president delivered more publicly, the same message House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) was delivering internally.
When his colleagues informed him of the first lady's remarks, Stupak felt good. He knew he was a survivor.
This time around, his Republican opponent, state Rep. Michelle McManus, has been pounding Stupak over the president's difficulties. Her latest missive, released on the eve of the vote, questions whether Stupak will have the courage to vote for an impeachment inquiry: "Will we see the First District Stupak or will we see the liberal Washington Stupak?"
"I'm sure she's just trying to agitate us," says chief of staff Schloegel.
"Bart is finally under a microscope on this one," says McManus. "The whole world is watching and wondering if he will finally vote on something the same way he said he would."
Usually when there is a major vote, both parties are in high gear. The whip organization as each party's internal lobbying force is called is trying to massage, cajole and pummel members if necessary into voting the party position. The term "whip," as in Democratic Whip David Bonior, is derived from a foxhunting term for the chap who assists the hunt master in keeping the dogs in line.
Sometimes you keep the dogs in line with love (a presidential visit to the district). Sometimes you do it with pain (stripping a member of his subcommittee chairmanship).
On this vote, the whipping has been applied gingerly.
"We won't disown anyone," says a Democratic leadership aide. "The vote is very important, but we won't wreak vengeance on anyone who doesn't go along with us."
The same message was conveyed to House Republicans by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). At their caucus meeting Wednesday, according to Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), one member asked: "Are we going to lose any votes?"
And Gingrich replied: "I'm not even asking the question."
But of course more is at stake for Democrats. Some have thought it useful to talk to the president.
Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a freshman whose opponent has tried to exploit Clinton's problems, called him on Tuesday. She had the president on the phone for 15 minutes. And in 15 minutes with Bill Clinton, you get a lot.
"He sounded like himself. He's always fact-filled, persuasive, anecdotal, focused and respectful."
But something is missing.
"What he did was very, very destructive to all of his relationships. I think you have to understand that no one sees him the same way anymore, and no one hears him the same way.
"He sounded pained at times and very clearly concerned about the aftermath of his actions, at how he had harmed people."
Tauscher was one of the 31 who voted with the Republicans.
Stupak finally gets a copy of the Democratic alternative at 10 p.m. Wednesday. It calls for wrapping up the investigation by Dec. 31 and limiting the scope of the inquiry to independent counsel Ken Starr's report about the Lewinsky affair. It allows for consideration of other matters only if Starr sends another referral to Congress. And most important to some Democrats, it directs the Judiciary Committee to first determine the standards for impeachable offenses and then to decide whether the allegations against Clinton, if true, warrant such an indictment.
Stupak looks at the Democrats' proposal, side by side with Hyde's. Then he reviews the Starr report again. Then he looks at the White House's rebuttal by lawyer David Kendall. Then he walks the two blocks to his Capitol Hill apartment. It's midnight. He knows this Dance of the Undecided is almost over.
"I just thought about it for a while," he says the next day. "When I left the office I had pretty much made up my mind. I kicked it around as I walked back. I talked to myself on the way back to the apartment."
At 8 a.m. yesterday, he goes to a congressional prayer breakfast in the Capitol. Afterward, he phones his chief of staff and tells him: "This Democratic alternative looks good."
"Hyde allows a fishing expedition," he explains. "You can start talking about anything you want, even things not on the radar screen."
He is emboldened by 205 e-mails that have come into this office over the past 36 hours arguing for Congress to censure Clinton and move on "to pressing issues facing the country."
He tells two of his Michigan delegation colleagues, Lynn Rivers and Debbie Stabenow, of his decision. He shares it with Bonior because "I was probably the last holdout."
Bart Stupak would be recorded as staying with the Democrats this time, in his mind helping to ensure his president is treated fairly. "This is by far the toughest vote," he says. "To impeach the president, you're asking us to reverse the '96 election. This is heavy-duty stuff, and I take it seriously."
As for the political flak he will take back home? As for his opponent's charges that he is refusing to hold the president accountable?
"My opponent will say that and everything else, no matter what I would have done."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company