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GOP Fence-Sitters Go Down to the Wire

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  • By Amy Goldstein and Lorraine Adams
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A44

    On the brink of the impeachment debate, about a dozen House members remain truly ambivalent about how they will vote, or at least have betrayed few hints of whether they believe President Clinton deserves to be removed from office.

    This core group of fence-sitters has dwindled steadily by the day and remains only one-third as large as it was when the week began. But small as it is, the lingering cadre of "undecideds" means that, mathematically, it would be possible for the president -- who must win over 12 more House members to avert impeachment -- could emerge from the vote with his job security intact.

    Such an outcome, however, lies beyond the expectations of both the White House and the moderate Republicans whose votes Clinton once counted on to save him. "There is a sense of inevitability," said Ron Bonjean, press secretary to Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a prominent member of the Republican moderates.

    Earlier this week, a few of these moderate members explored whether they could weld into a bloc to influence the rest of the House, but they abandoned the fledgling efforts as increasing numbers of their colleagues defected into the ranks of impeachment proponents.

    Monday night and Tuesday morning, Castle organized conference calls with seven fellow moderates to discuss the possibility of censuring Clinton, before sending a letter to the House Republican leadership advocating that course of action. But the very day the letter was dispatched, 11 previously undeclared Republicans announced they would vote for impeachment. "That led to the fading" of the moderates' momentum, Bonjean said.

    In a similar vein, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) attempted early this week to oblige a White House request to bring colleagues to a meeting he had requested with Clinton. Shays, who previously had said he opposed impeachment, announced Monday that he was rethinking his position. But Shays found himself unable to persuade any of the colleagues who had been part of the conference calls to accompany him to the meeting, which was postponed from Wednesday until today because of the military action in Iraq.

    The dozen "undecided" members are part of a slightly larger group, numbering perhaps 20, who have decided but not declared their intentions or who have indicated they are leaning one way or another.

    A few members said through aides yesterday that they will not make up their minds until they listen to the floor debate.

    As the House vote has drawn closer, the undecided and undeclared members have borne the brunt of intensive lobbying efforts to influence their views.

    But by yesterday, even the volume of telephone calls began to reflect a sense that the outcome was foreordained. In Shays's Connecticut office, about 500 people telephoned yesterday, half as many calls as the office received each day Monday and Tuesday. At Castle's Capitol Hill office, the telephones yesterday were oddly silent.

    As for the members themselves, they have tried to carve out as much seclusion as a lawmaker deciding whether to impeach a president can. Castle slept in his office on a cot Wednesday night. Yesterday morning, he went over to the Judiciary Committee's office to pore over evidence. He skipped the Republican Conference meeting last evening, taking a train to Wilmington yesterday afternoon to "go home and do some thinking," his spokesman said.

    Outgoing Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.) maintained no public schedule this week. The only appointment he kept, an aide said, was with his dentist.

    Shays last spoke publicly at an emotion-laden town meeting in his district Tuesday night that drew 2,000 constituents and lasted until after 2 a.m. Afterward, he was so keyed up that he packed his wife and daughter in the car and drove halfway back to Washington. Last evening, he too decided to miss the GOP conference.

    Lame duck Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who barely lost a bid for the Senate six weeks ago, has not spoken publicly since he failed to win a recount. The voice mail in his soon-to-close district office is perennially full, and callers have grumbled to Las Vegas newspapers that they have been unable to register their opinions.

    The congressman is back in Washington, according to his press secretary, Jack Finn. He has been conferring with a few close friends in Congress and studying more than 300 pages of transcripts.

    Asked yesterday when Ensign will announce his intentions, Finn replied: "When he votes."

    Staff writers Judith Havemann and Lonnae O'Neal Parker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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