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Area's House Members Mum on Clinton Vote

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  • By Spencer S. Hsu
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page B1

    On a day in which lawyers for the White House defended President Clinton from the imminent threat of an impeachment vote by the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) quietly stuck to her own routine.

    She left her home in Bethesda, drove to her Capitol office at midday and later toured a hospice. Asked about a possible landmark vote to remove Clinton from office, which could occur on the House floor as early as next week, the 67-year-old liberal Republican had nothing to say, according to her office.

    "She is paying attention when she can to C-SPAN," spokeswoman Mary Anne Leary said. "She is not making any statements until after she has voted."

    Morella was not alone. Tight-lipped and cautious, area House members are bracing for what may be the most agonizing vote of their political careers. Of 10 Maryland and Virginia representatives surveyed, few were committing themselves as of yesterday to a specific course of action.

    No one better illustrates the solemn silence, and dilemma, this issue is causing than Morella. Frequently a GOP defender of Clinton she calls herself the "number one independent in Congress" the 12-year incumbent hails from perhaps the most Democratic district in the nation to have consistently elected a Republican.

    The congresswoman agrees with the embattled president's positions on abortion, the environment and gun control, and is seen as being wary of impeaching a man approved by 70 percent of her Montgomery County voters. Mentioned as a possible 2000 Senate candidate, her decision also could figure critically in any GOP nomination race.

    "It's just inconceivable she would vote to remove the president," said Keith Haller, Bethesda pollster for Potomac Survey Research, summarizing the conventional view of liberal-leaning suburbanites who have elected Morella. "I would be dumbfounded."

    Around the Beltway and in the outlying districts of three House Judiciary Committee members from Virginia, it is Morella who has emerged among several liberals and moderates as facing the heaviest pressure. With most of the House's 435 minds made up, she and perhaps two dozen swing Republicans are being bombarded with calls from constituents, colleagues and reporters trying to find out whether they will buck their party or the polls.

    In Virginia, Judiciary Committee Democrats Robert C. Scott of Newport News and Rick Boucher of Abingdon have defended the White House while reserving final judgment until the committee votes. Boucher was one of four Democrats this week given the task of reaching out to Morella and 25 to 30 other liberal and moderate Republicans to test support for a presidential censure instead of impeachment.

    Suburban Maryland Democrats Albert R. Wynn and Steny H. Hoyer voted in October against an impeachment inquiry, but say they are undecided about censure.

    Among area Democrats from districts that Clinton carried in 1996, only Rep. James P. Moran Jr. of Alexandria defied partisan expectations by voting to investigate the president's behavior and testimony in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. Yet he, too, has said he could support censure.

    Most area Republicans have aggressively criticized the president's conduct. Northern Virginia Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Herbert H. Bateman have called for Clinton to resign. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III has said little but is expected to defer to the House GOP leadership. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Roanoke, a Judiciary Committee member, strongly supported impeachment proceedings.

    Moderates who have built their careers by appealing to voters across the ideological divide now find themselves having a hard time.

    "This issue stirs up so much emotion within people," said a senior aide to one representative from the region. "There are probably some members up there who feel they have to be careful about stirring those emotions up, one way or another."

    Mark J. Rozell, a D.C.-based political historian who supports the legality of the impeachment inquiry, said a decision is "agonizing because a member may believe . . . that a president has committed real wrongdoing. Yet politically, in the current climate, it's very difficult to vote in favor of impeachment."

    In October, Morella argued that there was no constitutional provision for censuring a president. Now, however, congressional sources say she is looking hard at that option. Also, she and other liberal and moderate Republicans face the wrenching possibility that GOP leaders may demand an up-or-down vote on impeachment.

    That would mark a watershed for Morella, who was reelected with 60 percent of the vote last month in a district that gave 57 percent to Clinton in 1992.

    Or, as Moran, a leader of Democratic efforts to reconnect the party with voters by emphasizing moral values, put it, "There are no easy answers here."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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