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For Undecideds, a New Priority: War

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Marc Fisher and Sharon Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A39

    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 today's story on the newly decided members.

    Surrounded by boxes and bubble wrap as he closes up shop on his congressional career, Paul McHale, one of the last of the Undecideds, gets word from a staff member that the crisis of the moment is no longer impeachment, but war.

    And then it's back to the phones for the Pennsylvania Democrat. The respite from the decision that has dominated his final days in the House is also a call to duty as the nation turns from questions of personal behavior to issues of national behavior, from one morality play to another.

    "Sad and predictable," McHale says of the current circumstances. "No justification of an attack on Saddam Hussein is needed. But I did not hear any plausible argument that justified an attack today as opposed to an attack after the House completed the vote tomorrow."

    On a day of uncertainties, when war trumped impeachment in an improbable battle of national priorities, the focus on the Undecideds eased. The dwindling band of House members may not seem as crucial to President Clinton's fate given the wave of Republicans who in the past two days have decided to impeach, but for each of those remaining, this continues to be an agonizing choice and one that may determine their political future.

    Those who have not yet said how they will vote on the drive to remove the president spent the day in transit, in meetings, in final contemplation, but truth be told, primarily in awe of the confluence of events.

    As the bombs began dropping in Iraq, Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) remained undecided, but sees that Clinton is being "freely second-guessed by all kinds of people, and not just his political adversaries. A lot of people are concerned there is a political dimension to the bombing. I would hate to assume that.

    "If the commander-in-chief feels the need to pursue a drastic measure like this, we should support it," English continued. "What's happening in Iraq is far too important to look for the political underside."

    However events play out in Baghdad, English believes, it will have no impact on the eventual impeachment vote. And however long the bombing continues, he knows his moment of decision is fast approaching.

    "People of good character in my job ought to be prepared to lose their seats over this," English said in an interview. He pulls a hardback copy of John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage" out of the pile on his desk. "I dug it out of my stack a week ago. I've been reading about the courage of Republicans who voted against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson."

    Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), an Air Force combat pilot in Vietnam who also served in the Persian Gulf War, joins in the general skepticism about the timing of impeachment and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein. But Gibbons stresses that his skepticism is aimed at Saddam Hussein, not the White House. The Iraqi leader, Gibbons says, may be trying to capitalize on the distraction in Washington.

    But Gibbons has not changed his habits of recent days; he's been spending at least 20 hours a week reading materials and listening to the debate on impeachment. "I don't accede to knee-jerk reactions," says Gibbons, a lawyer who is also a mining geologist. "I am probably a little more studious than I need to be."

    At Rep. John Edward Porter's Capitol Hill office, news of the imminent strike adds to the frenzy as aides prepare for the Illinois Republican's news conference announcing he will vote for impeachment.

    "We're going to wag the dog?" one aide asks incredulously.

    "We can't even get our 15 minutes of fame," another aide jokes.

    Opening his news conference, Porter apologizes about the timing of his remarks and adds that he "fully" supports Clinton on any actions against Iraq. Asked to reconcile that with his position on impeachment, Porter says, "He is today our president. That is an office I respect, and he occupies that office."

    Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), still trying to make up his mind, pores over a thick tome on the history of impeachment. He has been writing two statements -- one for impeachment and one against. And then CNN's nightscope images of Iraq steal his attention.

    "I think all of us recognize that Saddam Hussein is a very difficult person to deal with and he is quite adroit at picking times to his advantage," Whitfield says as he looks at the television. "I do think that President Clinton's position has weakened him, at least to people like Saddam Hussein."

    On the other hand, he wonders, why now?

    Some Seek Seclusion


    Despite a continuing procession of congressmen before the microphones to announce their support of impeachment, several of the remaining Undecideds stuck to their plan to hear the House debate before taking sides.

    A few Undecideds remained in seclusion, avoiding interviews, skipping their party caucus, savoring every hour away from the capital fray.

    Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) broke his self-imposed silence on the issue, saying he agreed with the House leadership's decision to postpone the impeachment vote. Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said that "when we have hostilities, it's appropriate to delay." He dismissed any suggestion that the attack was an attempt to distract the country from the president's troubles.

    "The first vote I ever cast in Congress was a vote to commit our country to war against Iraq," said Bud Cramer (D-Ala.), another Undecided who had stayed silent until yesterday. "I believe just as strongly today that the United States must stand up to Saddam Hussein, and I support our military's efforts to hold him accountable."

    With Washington in a swirl, most of the stragglers made their way back, nearing the moment of commitment. Some have decided, but insist on keeping their direction secret. Others claim still to be settling in on their own solution. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, is leaning toward splitting the difference with his deeply divided constituents, voting for the two articles of impeachment on perjury and against the other two. In a district that gave Clinton 60 percent of its vote in 1996, that might satisfy some voters -- and Dickey's conscience.

    But the congressman knows that whatever he does, he will lose some votes. "I will have to go out and reach out to those people and get them back," he says. "It's also going to put a different kind of pressure on all my votes. I am going to lose considerably no matter what I do."

    A Democrat's View


    At 5 a.m., William O. Lipinski, one of the few remaining undecided Democrats, slips out of bed, dresses, sips coffee with his wife, and leaves his suburban Chicago bungalow finally ready, finally at peace. He won't say what it is, but he has a decision.

    There was no pivotal moment, no epiphany. But by Tuesday night, something had solidified. His wife, Rose Marie, and his 32-year-old son, an aide to Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, were important factors. But so was keeping to his routines: Lipinski went to Mass. He visited his mother. He went with his family to the "Holiday Magic" show at the local zoo.

    Lipinski offers what may be a hint of the decision: "This is a strong nation. We will survive."

    Landing at National, Lipinski finds a clot of reporters and TV cameramen waiting for him. The questions begin cascading down on him the second he emerges from Gate 31.

    "Have you made a decision?"

    "What do your constituents think?"

    Lipinski freezes a smile and keeps walking. Then he suddenly stops.

    "Excuse me, I have to use the restroom," he says, slipping into the doorway.

    'It Gets Lonelier and Lonelier'


    Like a noose, the circle draws tighter around James C. Greenwood. "It gets lonelier and lonelier," the Pennsylvania Republican says.

    Over and over, he explains his silence to reporters and constituents clamoring for an answer. He does two radio talk shows, NBC's "Dateline," CNN, the "News Hour with Jim Lehrer." "Geraldo, no, but Jim Lehrer yes," Greenwood says.

    "When the House of Representatives debates impeachment of the president of the United States," he said, "I feel obligated to the process, to my colleagues and to history to not sit there with my fingers in my ears and say, I'm sorry, I've made up my mind. I need to listen."

    To Greenwood, impeachment remains "an extremely close call" that hinges on a single crucial question. He believes Clinton perjured himself before the grand jury, but he also believes it would be wrong to ignore that the perjury concerned private sexual conduct.

    "The question is what is the threshold of impeachability," he said. "There's no rule book for that."

    'We're Bombing'


    The sun is not up yet in Albuquerque, but Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) is already on the move, rushing alone through the fluorescent haze of an empty airport to catch a flight to Washington.

    It has been a long, restless night. Wilson, a 37-year-old former Rhodes scholar, says she watched "almost none" of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings last week because she loathes television and wants to make up her mind by carefully reading the facts without political theatrics.

    So after dinner Tuesday, after she put her toddling children to bed, Wilson ended her day with one last hunt for answers. She slogged through a thick slab of documents outlining the Republican case against Clinton. By Wednesday morning, she is lugging still more papers under her arm to read during the five-hour flight.

    But by the time she arrives at National Airport, the day has taken another dramatic turn. She takes off to Capitol Hill to meet with lawyers from the House Judiciary Committee, then drops by the House Intelligence Committee in hopes of getting a few more details on the breaking military news.

    Back at her office voter calls on impeachment slow down, and all eyes shift to television sets with scenes of Baghdad.

    "The timing of this bothers her a little bit," says Eddie Binder, Wilson's press secretary. "It seems a little strange, because this is the second time there has been a crisis like this when something else is coming down."

    Suddenly an aide bursts into the room. "We're bombing," he says.

    Then the office falls silent as staffers watch the green screen of CNN, the tiny streaks of light tracing lines of destruction in the Iraqi sky.

    'Explosions'


    Silence descends over McHale's office as the first reports of the attack come on the TV. The congressman's 8-year-old son, Luke, stops tossing a red foam ball into a basketball hoop.

    "What's that?" he asks.

    "Explosions," his father replies.

    "Explosions," Luke says. "Why? Has anybody died?"

    "Because Saddam Hussein hasn't kept his promises," McHale says.

    This article was reported by staff writers Lorraine Adams, Charles Babington, Victoria Benning, Stephen Barr, Amy Goldstein, Marcia Slacum Greene, Peter Perl, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Lois Romano, Christina A. Samuels, Rene Sanchez, Susan Schmidt, John Schwartz, Jackie Spinner, Stephanie Stoughton, Steve Vogel, Edward Walsh and Eric L. Wee.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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