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State of Union Puts GOP in a Dilemma

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page A19

    With President Clinton planning to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, many GOP lawmakers are wrestling with how to demonstrate respect for the office of the presidency without endorsing the conduct that prompted them to vote to impeach the chief executive in December.

    Even moderate Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), one of a handful of GOP House members who voted against impeachment, voiced concern about whether he can afford to be caught on camera clapping when the president announces a policy initiative Shays supports.

    "From a selfish standpoint, I just wish he wouldn't do it," Shays said. "I will be in the chamber, but I will be in the far right," away from the cameras.

    Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said Clinton has the right to deliver his annual address, even though Gramm opposes that approach.

    "I think basically that it's inappropriate to adjourn a trial to bring the jury over for a pep rally for the accused," Gramm said, adding that he likely will attend the session. "I think it puts us in a very difficult position and I'm sure it's going to be a very difficult night."

    The timing is particularly difficult for some lawmakers because Clinton's lawyers are set to start mounting his impeachment defense on the day the president is scheduled to deliver his speech. White House officials had broached the idea of delaying the trial a day with Senate GOP leaders, but were rebuffed.

    A few Republicans have decided to boycott the address. Rep. Tom Coburn, a conservative junior member, will remain in his Oklahoma district. In a letter Wednesday, Coburn urged House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to ask to delay the speech or deliver it in writing.

    "He's going to be addressing the very people who are going to be making decisions about him," Coburn said. "The timing is wrong right now. I don't think it hurts the nation one bit to delay it two or three weeks."

    White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said Clinton wouldn't suggest to Republicans what they should do, but added that he expected lawmakers would "conduct themselves in a manner that befits a member of Congress."

    Many Democrats intend to turn out in full force and cheer Clinton. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said it's "more important than ever to be there for the president."

    Some simply are opting out of the occasion. Former Republican Conference chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio) isn't deliberating snubbing the president, but has decided to stay in Hawaii with his wife to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

    Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said he expects to watch the speech on television from home, but said it was not out of disrespect. "Mostly because it's not fun," he told ABC's "Nightline" on Wednesday. ". . . I can watch on television and do my leaping from my feet at home."

    The House GOP leadership which helped lead the drive to impeach the president has emerged as the president's defenders in this fight: None of the top Republicans have questioned the appropriateness of his address, and aides to Clinton critic Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the majority whip, briefly considered calling members' offices to check on attendance before concluding it was not necessary.

    A coincidental quirk of timing, rather than Clinton's troubles, may keep attendance down. Republican House leaders have scheduled no floor votes until Feb. 2 on the theory that committees should have more time to develop legislation.

    As a result, said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), lawmakers can continue working in their districts without needing to be in Washington for a vote. "If I was a junior congressman, I don't think I'd go up for the State of the Union," he said.

    Barton noted that Republicans decided to go ahead with impeachment proceedings even as the U.S. bombed Iraq last month, and it only makes sense that Clinton address the nation as the Senate trial continues.

    "We can't have it both ways," Barton said, adding that a strong turnout provides a valuable political lesson. "It shows that our system is not in crisis."

    Engel, who called the impeachment of Clinton "a travesty," questioned why Republicans wouldn't pay homage to the institution of the presidency.

    "He's our president. He's the country's president. It's a shame so many of my colleagues are so consumed with hatred of this man they can't look at the fact that he's the president," he said. "They should put their partisan nonsense aside for just one night."

    Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Republicans are peeved for political reasons. "They may think he's going around them and taking his case to the American people," he said. "In my own estimation, that's exactly what he should do."

    Barton said he and his fellow Republicans "respect the office of the presidency" and will behave appropriately.

    "Democrats will be wildly enthusiastic," he predicted. "On the Republican side it will be much more restrained, but it won't be hostile at all."

    Staff writers Eric Pianin and John F. Harris contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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