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Undecided Lawmaker Faces Barrage

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  • By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A01

    BABYLON, N.Y., Dec. 13—Actually, the phones in the Long Island office of Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) were not ringing off the hook today. They were ringing on the hook.

    That's because Lazio's district director Barbara Vogel was not answering them. During the workweek, Lazio's entire staff had pulled full-time receptionist duty, and Vogel knew that if she started handling the continuing deluge of calls about impeachment, her day off would be shot.

    "It's just too crazy right now," said Vogel, who had just stopped by work to drop off some Toys for Tots. "We got 500 calls to this office Friday. It's all anybody's doing."

    Lazio is one of the undecideds, one of those previously unheralded GOP moderates who suddenly control President Clinton's fate. And with six of those undeclared House members hailing from New York, that state is shaping up as the key battleground in the political war over impeachment.

    New York is widely viewed as a Democratic state; it was Clinton's second-best in 1992, his third-best in 1996. Moderate Republicans also wield power here, and they have strayed from the GOP line on the Monica S. Lewinsky mess. Gov. George E. Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and outgoing Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato all spoke out against impeachment last week, and three of the five declared GOP impeachment opponents in the House are from New York. Lazio, a third-term congressman who is considering a run for Senate in 2000, has said he will vote his conscience on impeachment regardless of political pressures. But when New Yorkers have opinions about something, they tend to make those opinions heard. And with the gravity of the president's predicament finally hitting home outside the Beltway, Babylon today felt a bit like its biblical namesake: plenty of noisy voices, not much common ground.

    Lazio aides said last week's calls ran 60-40 in favor of impeachment, with volume even heavier than it was during the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the previous record-setter; interviews today with two dozen residents of Babylon ran about 65-35 the other way. What was more telling was the intensity of the opinions -- impeachment was either a stark necessity or the scariest prospect since "The Amityville Horror," the 1979 movie based on a nearby purportedly haunted house. And while every voter interviewed thought Lazio was doing a good job for the district, many also said pointedly that they will be watching his vote, and that they will remember in 2000 if he makes the wrong choice.

    From the pulpit of the United Methodist Church, pastor David Randolph today urged his parishioners to call Lazio, describing impeachment as "a murder-suicide pact."

    "If Congress stones this president, they'll be stoning themselves," Randolph said in an interview later. "I have great respect for Rick, but this will be a real test of his courage. I'll be very disappointed if he votes to impeach."

    Meanwhile, at the rundown Babylon train station for which Lazio recently secured $1.25 million in modernization money -- it will henceforth be known as the "Babylon Intermodal Transportation Center" -- Joe Timme said he may never forgive Lazio if he votes to keep Clinton in office.

    "The guy is guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" shouted Timme, 76, a Republican war veteran who used to run a roofing business. "They throw those service guys out for sex things. How can you say it's okay for the president? Huh? How?"

    Lazio was traveling with Clinton in Israel -- by invitation of the House leadership, not the president -- and said he won't announce how he will vote until he returns Wednesday. He did speak to Clinton briefly aboard Air Force One on Saturday, but the subject of impeachment did not come up. Nevertheless, he wandered to the back of the plane to tell reporters that Clinton's latest apology had not helped his case, and to urge the president to admit he lied under oath.

    Today, Lazio appeared on CNN's "Late Edition" and further ruminated about his choice. "There's no doubt that the easiest thing would probably be to vote for some kind of censure," he said. "But that doesn't make it the right thing. And I shouldn't be doing what's expedient or easy or fulfills some type of ambition. I should be doing what's right, even if it's a difficult vote, even if it means that it adversely affects my career."

    Aides say Lazio has not been pressured by the White House, nor by anyone in the New York or national GOP leadership. But both sides of the aisle have been devising a "New York strategy" for this week, hoping to sway Lazio and his fellow Empire State undecideds: Michael P. Forbes, Sue W. Kelly, Benjamin A. Gilman, Sherwood L. Boehlert and John M. McHugh. James T. Walsh, another Republican holdout, announced Saturday that he would vote for impeachment, but Peter T. King, Jack Quinn and Amo Houghton have announced that they will oppose it.

    Their refusal to march in lockstep with the party's leaders fits squarely into New York's tradition of moderate Republicanism, embodied by progressive New York City mayors such as Fiorello La Guardia, John Lindsay and Giuliani, as well as statewide officeholders such as Thomas E. Dewey, Wendell Willkie, Jacob Javits and Nelson A. Rockefeller.

    Lazio is somewhat of a Rockefeller Republican himself, fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues. He is in many ways a loyal party man, a deputy GOP whip who pushed hard for capital gains tax cuts and crafted a landmark bill reforming public housing. But he has also supported the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady bill, the assault weapons ban and the National Endowment for the Arts, while earning the endorsement of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters for his shoreline protection work.

    Now Lazio, 40, is in a political pickle. He has been enormously popular in his stolid middle-class district ever since he unseated 18-year Democratic incumbent Rep. Thomas Downey in 1992, but he has limited himself to six terms in the House. But if he runs for Senate, a vote for impeachment could alienate moderate voters in a race against a Democrat like HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, while a vote against impeachment could hurt him in a GOP primary or even draw a Conservative Party candidate into the general election. Most of the other fence-sitting Republicans are more worried about holding onto their districts. The day Houghton announced he would oppose impeachment, a conservative Republican announced that he would mount a primary challenge. But with polls showing that most Americans and most New Yorkers oppose impeachment, supporting it could be a risk for members outside staunchly Republican districts.

    "There are so many angles to this thing, you can't even predict what will help you or hurt you," said one aide to a GOP congressman from New York.

    Lazio has a huge reservoir of goodwill here on the South Shore, in a suburban district that fell on hard times after major layoffs at Grumman a decade ago but has rebounded in recent years. Yes, the leading employers now are the IRS and a massive temp agency, and Randolph's church has seen demand for its food pantry double in the past year. But for the most part, people seem relatively content -- with Lazio and, at least where performance is concerned, with Clinton. In an editorial today, Newsday, which endorsed Lazio's reelection campaign, called the Judiciary Committee "a kangaroo court on its way to a lynching."

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