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'Moderates' Plod Paths to Decision

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  • By Marc Fisher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A1

    Editor's Note: Post reporters fanned out across the nation to track the decisions being made by the several dozen members of Congress who hold President Clinton's fate in their hands. Also see the list of key undecided members and the political forces in their districts.

    The congressman cannot field any calls about impeachment right now. He's out -- surfing, sailing, sifting for the answer.

    All 10 lines at Rep. Brian P. Bilbray's district office in San Diego are lit up in angry red. Callers are yelling about morality, fairness, sex and political retribution. A producer from Fox is holding on Line 3 and the yellow Post-It just handed to chief of staff John Woodard alerts him that the TV lady "sounds upset."

    No matter. There is a northwest swell, three to six feet. And with the great sea of democracy in a threatening roil, its undertow pulling at a president, at least one of the "undecideds" -- the couple of dozen congressmen who will decide the fate of Bill Clinton -- is in search of the perfect wave, the one that will deliver a signal.

    Something must come. By Thursday, Bilbray must decide. Impeach or not, yea or nay. For now, Woodard says, Bilbray stays "in seclusion," spending time out at the beach, then back in his house nine blocks from the Pacific. Phone unplugged, media shut out, the modern legislator deliberating.

    Bilbray is also reading the Federalist Papers, and reviewing the transcripts and the videotapes, the official record of this sordid year.

    While Bilbray reads on the left coast, Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) sits in the capital, deep in the swamp of allegations. He's on the phone, on yet another radio talk show, laying it out.

    "I have two lousy choices," he tells a reporter in between calls. "I can vote against impeachment, which sends a message that the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America can perjure himself and essentially face no constitutional sanctions for that, and that's a bad outcome. The other lousy choice that I have is to vote for impeachment, knowing that this country does not want to endure a trial in the Senate with Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp testifying in the well of the Senate. If what we've been through so far is nauseating, my notion of a trial in the Senate is the nation as a whole hanging over the well and heaving."

    The competing pressures of the public, party, pundits and principle hit fever pitch yesterday, driving some congressmen to announce their decisions and avoid the limelight. Others maintained their silence, either to heighten the suspense -- and perhaps gain extra attention -- or because they genuinely remained on the fence.

    From a McDonald's on I-80 in Pennsylvania to the Albuquerque Petroleum Club, from Capitol hideaways to a Chinese restaurant in Pine Bluff, Ark., Washington Post reporters yesterday caught up with -- or circled futilely -- the three dozen House members who will decide whether to end the nation's year of scandal with the second impeachment of a president in American history.

    As the day wore on, more and more of the undecideds -- known colloquially as Republican "moderates," though that label inaccurately describes a group ranging from a few Rockefeller Republicans to a large clot of true-blue Reaganauts to a handful of conservative Democrats -- lined up against Clinton.

    But if the president's fate seemed sealed by day's end, the individual dramas continued to play out across the country. And in a week that will likely be the historical zenith of most of these legislators' careers, the path to each decision was paved with uncharacteristic caution and deliberation.

    They cloistered themselves -- at home, in mountain getaways, in Washington apartments. Or they bathed in the public's sudden activism, sifting through mounds of correspondence from voters. Or they listened to the entreaties of the White House, the Republican leadership, their Democratic counterparts, the dozens of surrogates selected by crafty operatives for maximum sway with the undecideds.

    Some acted as if they were cardinals picking the next pope. For a second day, Rep. John Edward Porter, a Republican from the wealthy lakefront suburbs north of Chicago, remained out of pocket, at his home in Northern Virginia, reviewing the documents. "He's immersed right now in very serious deliberation," says David Kohn, Porter's press spokesman. "I think he's nearing a final decision on how he will address this matter."

    The e-mails tumbled in by the thousands, overloading even the most efficient Hill interns. The phones trilled incessantly. The Los Angeles Times editorial page listed the phone numbers of every area House member and warned them to "beware the wrath of the American people." Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) represents a sliver of a state, but his days of anonymity came to a clamorous close: The supplicants at his door include "Nightline," Peter Jennings, and the White House.

    Things were getting a bit hairy up on the Hill, where underpaid staffers and oppressed interns were learning the true meaning of representative democracy. At Rep. Rick Lazio's office, normally courteous staffers were reduced to barking into the phone, "Congressman Lazio's office. Where are you from?" While his staff was frantic, the New York Republican was high above the fray, on a 12-hour flight home from Israel, with in-flight movies and complimentary beverage service to assist his thought process.

    Lazio had accepted the president's invitation to join him on in the Middle East, but while the two "had extensive discussions about this trip . . . and about policy," they exchanged not a word about impeachment, Lazio said from his room at the Jerusalem Hilton.

    By last night, 12 hours up in the sky must have looked awfully enticing to some of the undecideds. The insatiable cable TV news channels launched round-the-clock vigils; MSNBC commissioned a logo depicting the moderates as "Caught in the Middle."

    Some of the group relished the attention and trumpeted their indecision, displaying to the nation each twinge of anguish. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), interviewed in the small Arkansas town of Pine Bluff, likened the pressure to "12 hours of surgery without anesthesia."

    Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), hardly a household name, became a media mainstay in the last few days. On Sunday, he took to ABC to tell Sam and Cokie how his constituents were giving it to him "from all sides . . . 'I'm not going to vote for you if you do this. I'm not going to vote for you if you do that. I'm going to picket the streets.' It's a very polarized, obviously, situation." On Monday, he was on MSNBC, over and over again.

    Finally, Ney, whose rural district sprawls eastward from Columbus to the West Virginia border, left Washington yesterday afternoon, returning to St. Clairsville, Ohio, "to spend time with family and take care of Christmas-related stuff," according to his chief of staff, Neil Volz. Ney plans to announce his decision today.

    The urge to find a place to mull was powerful. While her office is flooded with 1,000 phone calls -- including a White House offer of free legal advice to answer any constitutional queries -- and 2,500 e-mails each day, newly elected Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), has spent her week at home in "quiet reflection," aided by a peaceful atmosphere hardly any other politician would have the courage to create: Wilson doesn't have cable.

    Back home for one last day of listening to her constituents, Wilson mingled with the luncheon crowd at the Albuquerque Petroleum Club. A woman approached the congresswoman, took her hand and looked her straight in the eye.

    "I don't want to know what you're going to do," she told Wilson. "But whichever way you decide, I want it to be because you're doing what you think is right." No one mentioned the word impeachment. No one needed to.

    ". . . I should not go into this
    historic debate with my mind closed."

    An undecided congressman is saying "I have come to the decision . . . "

    Yes, yes?

    " . . . that I should not go into this historic debate with my mind closed."


    "I think that I owe it to my constituency, which is deeply and evenly divided on this question, and I owe it to my colleagues, and I owe it to history, to be available to persuasion," says Greenwood, the Pennsylvania Republican. "This is one where you sit in the House and you listen."

    Greenwood is a rare bird these days in Washington, a moderate Republican, fiscally conservative and pro-choice. He comes from a district in Bucks County, 58 percent Republican and 43 percent Democratic, that runs the gamut from upscale bedroom communities to an aging steel mill threatened by Russian imports.

    Bundles of mail litter the floor outside the doorway to Greenwood's office on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building.

    Inside, the congressman sits back in his leather chair and puts his foot up on his desk, which is clean but for an in-box piled with documents and three huge government volumes -- the Starr evidence.

    If Greenwood had planned a contemplative week of decision, he can forget it. The media calls are ceaseless.

    "I have turned down Crossfire, Fox, Geraldo -- I've not been enthusiastic about going in front of the TV cameras," he says. "There's been enough show biz on this issue. If I had anything profound to say, I'd say it."

    He's been in the office since 8:15, when he kept his first commitment of the day -- a call to a popular morning talk show on WWDB radio back in Philly.

    "Good morning, Dominic, how are you?" Greenwood says. He's on the air. He nods, listens to the talk show host, then talks about the circle of blame.

    "We're here, at this bizarre juncture, because of the actions of Bill Clinton. This beast has a tail that goes all the way back to the Excelsior Hotel in Arkansas and Paula Jones. What bothers me is that somehow, people have been persuaded that they need to blame everybody else except the president -- they need to blame Paula Jones, they need to blame Ken Starr, they need to blame Congress. We're just the cleanup crew here. We're just trying to figure out how to clean this mess up."

    Interview done. The decision still looms. The phone rings. It's not quite 9 o'clock in the morning. Greenwood looks over at his receptionist, now hard at work. "This is KYW radio," she says, her hand over the receiver. "Want to do it at 9:30?"

    "There's no drumroll in mind here,
    and there's no pleasure in it."

    In the cases of those undecideds who had cut off all radio contact and vanished into a monkish period of contemplation, it fell to their staffers and political associates to read the tea leaves and hold the media horde at bay.

    Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) spent the day playing Santa Claus and passing out Christmas and Hanukah gifts to family, says spokesman Andy Zarutskie.

    Phil English (R-Pa.) set off for a seven-hour drive through the winding Allegheny Mountain roads of northwestern Pennsylvania, searching his conscience without interruption from constituents, party leaders and White House aides.

    Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.), the senior House Republican, was at home in Falls Church, saying nothing. But his associates and hometown reporters say he is weighing his own bitter experience with federal prosecutors.

    In 1996, McDade was acquitted of bribery and racketeering charges that had dogged him for eight years.

    After his acquittal, McDade introduced legislation to impose new ethics requirements on federal prosecutors.

    "I am a product of everything I went through," McDade told the Scranton Times-Tribune. "I have certain opinions about what happened, but that's not controlling."

    Still. "I think it was unethical to have that woman, Lewinsky, in a room surrounded by people who questioned her and told her she didn't need a lawyer and she couldn't talk to her mother. It's part of everything I'm going to look at."

    Staffers insisted their members' silence was no game, no ploy.

    "I assure you, we're not playing this process for any ulterior motive," says Bill Tate, chief of staff to Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa). "There's no drumroll in mind here, and there's no pleasure in it."

    Leach -- an 11-term moderate Republican whose sharply divided district ranges from liberal Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, to the more conservative and working-class Davenport -- is fully capable of displaying his independence.

    In 1973, as a young Russian-speaking foreign service officer with orders to report to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Leach gave up a promising diplomatic career and resigned from the State Department as a protest against the "Saturday Night Massacre," when President Richard M. Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, and Richardson resigned rather than carry out the order. Leach went home to Davenport and took up his family's propane gas business.

    And early last year, Leach cast a vote against giving Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) a second term as speaker of the House in the midst of an ethics scandal, a decision aides said was based solely on conscience.

    Will he do it again? "The fact is, we have no clue at all," says Ken Sullivan, a political writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

    "He's out hitting some golf balls
    right now, clearing his head."

    Not even his mother knows what Rep. Ed Whitfield, the first Republican elected to Kentucky's predominantly Democratic First District since the Civil War, is going to do.

    Anthony Hulen, a Whitfield staffer, says the congressman is in seclusion somewhere in the Washington area, reviewing impeachment documents from a heavy suitcase.

    Mary "Jennie" Whitfield says she saw her boy last week, but he had nothing to say about impeachment.

    "We don't question him about it, because I feel like when he has the time, he likes to relax," she says. "If he volunteers, fine."

    Which, of course, he didn't.

    (Whitfield may not find many answers if he looks toward home for advice. Hilda Bentley, pastor of the Christian Heights United Methodist Church in Hopkinsville, where Whitfield's parents live, says it's all been "very tricky."

    At services Sunday, she told of a boy who rammed a car into his family's mailbox and said "the car did it."

    When his father asked where the boy had learned to fib, the child responded that he "had learned it from the president of the United States." Bentley's sermon did not say what punishment the boy received.)

    If a mother doesn't know, perhaps a son does.

    Steve Danner, who has talked to his mother -- Rep. Pat Danner (D-Mo.) -- at length about the impending vote, says he can't figure her out. "This will be the toughest vote she'll cast, and she's gathering as much information as she can," he says. "Mother has always been independent. I can't really say what's in her mind. I know that she's been bombarded from every direction, both pro and con."

    If a son doesn't know, perhaps a spouse does.

    "He's out hitting some golf balls right now, clearing his head," says Kathryn Porter, wife of Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) "Particularly in the last week, he's been very intense. He goes off by himself to his study, spending hours there."

    Mrs. Porter, a human rights activist who says she and her husband enjoy their spirited political differences, says her husband "votes his conscience, even when he has a vociferous wife arguing in his ear."

    Porter has been talking to former congressional leaders Robert J. Dole and Robert Michel and will likely reveal his decision today. "I really couldn't tell you which way he's going to go," she says. "It's one of those soulful decisions."

    Well, perhaps one last try with family members. Another spouse.

    Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) -- a lawyer, mining geologist and commercial airline pilot in his pre-political career -- also remained silent publicly, but his wife, Dawn, a businesswoman who was elected last month to Gibbons' former state assembly seat, thinks he will vote to impeach.

    "This is a very hard vote for Jim," she said. "It is hard to talk to him. He is taking it so seriously, really taking it to heart. He is just so troubled, I feel really bad for him. . . . He will analyze each charge until he drives everyone crazy. If there is any way he can give Clinton a break, he will, but I am willing to bet he will vote for impeachment on at least two counts. . . . America is strong, and we will survive."

    "Now everything is couched
    in some kind of double meaning."

    Kathy Havens -- president of an eyewear import company, wife, mother of two young adults -- has never called on a politician before. So she is nervous as she sits in downtown Stamford, Conn., at 2 p.m., at the office of Rep. Christopher Shays (R).

    Somehow, the Lewinsky matter has gripped Havens like no political topic before. She searches the web for the latest news. She's even read the Federalist Papers. And now, she seeks an audience with her congressman.

    "What's been on your mind?" Shays asks gently. "You want to tell me how you feel."

    "My problem is, I can't believe this president anymore, and I don't know how I can get around that," Havens replies. "I can't let it go. I've tried. Do you have confidence in him?"

    "Do I believe the president is a man of his word?" Shays says. "No. Now everything is couched in some kind of double meaning."

    The constituent tells her representative that if he votes for impeachment, she can never vote for him again.

    Shays, who announced yesterday that he is reconsidering his earlier decision to oppose impeachment, notes her views on his pad.

    It all goes into the mix, back and forth.

    One minute, "You have a position you think is sound," Shays says. "Then you hear criticism that you think is legitimate." Back and forth, back and forth.

    The pressure keeps growing.
    "It may be too late."

    By now, the first Democrat to call for Clinton to step down, Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, had expected to be in what he longingly calls "a smooth transition to private life." Next month, the outgoing congressman will become a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, teaching a political science course that will take up the Federalist Papers.

    "We'll have some contemporary examples," he laughs as he and his wife, Kathy, drive along I-80 through the bare Poconos toward a remote log cabin they are building as a getaway.

    McHale's district office is already shutting down. "Store for Rent," says the sign outside. But the phones don't stop: Monday's tally was 179 for impeachment, 197 against, and 29 for censure.

    The pressure keeps growing. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt calls in: Perhaps Mr. McHale would like to sit down with the president Wednesday?

    "It may be too late," McHale says. He won't announce his decision until the very end. But clearly, he's leaning toward yes on the first three articles.

    "I told Gephardt that it would only be productive if the president is willing to admit in public what he's willing to admit in private," McHale says.

    Gephardt responds that he thinks Clinton is prepared to do that.

    "People are Christmas shopping . . .
    that is the real world."

    Time is getting short.

    Scott L. Klug (R-Wis.) is fielding 1,700 calls a day at the district office, and the lame duck is already working at his new job, publishing a tourism magazine, Wisconsin Trails. But he has to decide and he will, like a juror, after every bit of evidence is in.

    This is the big decision of his political career, he concedes, but it's not the end of the world. "Everywhere you go, people have feelings to express on this but life goes on," he says. "People are Christmas shopping, the Packers are struggling to make the playoffs, that is the real world. That may not be Washington, but that is the real world."

    By late in the day, Heather Wilson is on the cell phone back to Washington to catch up on developments. She sounds startled to hear that several more Republicans have announced they will vote to impeach the president.

    "Who are they?"

    "He said yes on all four? . . . Wow, okay, okay."

    "Do you know what would be helpful, if any of them released written statements, could we get them? Just fax them to me. I can read them tonight or on the way back tomorrow."

    She hangs up. Wilson says she still has not decided, but in the last few days she has been thinking about a juvenile she got to know years ago while working for the state's child welfare agency.

    "He was a very likable, intelligent young guy who had made a stupid choice and then he got paroled, but then he made another stupid choice. I wish he didn't have to come back, but he did. He had to pay a price and that was the right thing to do."

    And what does the fortune cookie say?

    "DICKEY STILL NOT TELLING," screams the headline in the Pine Bluff Commercial. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) for the first time acknowledges he has decided. But he won't say which way.

    "The thing with me is that I have never expected him to tell the truth," says Dickey of the president, whom he has known for many years. "So I have never been disappointed. The problem with President Clinton is that he only gives us the direct story in direct proportion to how close we are to finding the truth. It's kind of like the tide moving in. . . . My nerve endings are just frayed."

    Dickey has lunch at Weng's, a Chinese place in Pine Bluff. He has the beef with broccoli, spicy chicken, a fortune cookie for the road. His fortune: "Keep your plans secret for now."

    This article was reported by staff writers Lorraine Adams, Charles Babington, Victoria Benning, Steve Barr, Paul Blustein, William Booth, William Claiborne, Patrice Gaines, Amy Goldstein, Judith Havemann, Michael Colton, Helen Dewar, Vernon Loeb, John Mintz, Dan Morgan, Terry M. Neal, Peter Perl, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Lois Romano, Christina A. Samuels, Rene Sanchez, Sue Schmidt, John Schwartz, Jackie Spinner, Stephanie Stoughton, Lena Sun, Roberto Suro, Steve Vogel, Sharon Walsh and Eric Wee, and was written by Marc Fisher.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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