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Fence-Sitters Can't Get Past Clinton's Words

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  • By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 17, 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 today's story on the still undecided members.

    Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) explained yesterday that "as a Christian country," America should forgive President Clinton, "for no one is perfect in this life." Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) declared that the independent counsel's investigation was "too long, too expensive and too intrusive." Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) mused that an impeachment vote would be "one of the saddest moments in our nation's history." And Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) emphasized that he hopes the Senate will consider a censure resolution that would allow the president to remain in office.

    Nevertheless, Ney, Leach, Kolbe and Boehlert all announced yesterday that they will vote to impeach, joining a half-dozen other GOP holdouts, including Virginia's Thomas M. Davis III.

    In the wake of Tuesday's pro-impeachment announcements by 10 key fence-sitting Republicans, the new round of announcements -- by some members once considered the White House's best hopes for crossover votes -- almost ensured that the case against William Jefferson Clinton will go to the Senate for trial.

    The newly decided all said they had agonized over their choice for months, received calls from hundreds of constituents, studied reams of legal analysis. Several said that in recent days, they had lain awake for hours, wrestling with their consciences, wondering about the consequences for the nation, for their own careers. Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) was urged to vote no by his wife, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) by his 13-year-old son.

    In the end, though, the reasoning for most of the GOP undecideds seemed fairly simple: The president lied under oath. And he never, not even in these last frenzied days, gave them a good reason not to impeach him for it.

    With the impeachment vote fast approaching, these moderates felt they had no choice. With the censure option off the table for the House, they felt that a "no" vote on impeachment would seem like an endorsement of lying under oath, of the notion that the president is above the law. And some of them also figured that a vote to impeach in the House was not the same thing as a vote to remove by the Senate.

    "I simply have not found the means to rationalize away the fact that our president lied under oath," said Boehlert, a moderate from Utica, N.Y. But then he pointedly refused to say that he wanted Clinton removed from office and praised the censure-plus-fine-without-immunity solution proposed by former Massachusetts governor William Weld.

    The members all said politics and partisanship had nothing to do with their decisions, but the voting is clearly dividing along strong partisan lines. Polls say most Americans oppose impeachment, but in some Republican-leaning districts calls to congressional offices were overwhelmingly against Clinton. And some moderate Republicans were undoubtedly worried that a vote against impeachment would invite a conservative primary challenge, or would cause the Republican Party to cut off campaign funding.

    Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) was typical in his portrayal of his decision as a brave choice of conscience. "This is neither a personal nor a partisan decision," he wrote on his Web site last night, where he quietly revealed his decision while his fellow representatives announced theirs at news conferences and on television. "It is not about the fate of one man but the value of truth itself, the principle that no man, no matter how rich or powerful, is above the law."

    Rep. Gerald C. Weller (R-Ill.) said in announcing his decision Tuesday that he knew his vote to impeach might be unpopular, but so was Abraham Lincoln's decision to free the slaves and Martin Luther King Jr.'s crusade for civil rights. Then again, calls to Weller's office have been running 3 to 1 in favor of impeachment.

    In any case, members like Weller could not get past the idea that Clinton lied under oath, even if it was about sex, even if it did arise in a civil lawsuit that has since been dismissed. They said that ever since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr released his 453-page report about the Monica S. Lewinsky saga in September, they have waited in vain for Clinton to mount a defense or admit he committed perjury. He has apologized and he has admitted he misled the American people, but he has never said: "I lied."

    "Based on information on the table, I have reluctantly arrived at a conclusion that I wish to God I didn't have to make," said Leach, a moderate Republican from a strongly pro-Clinton district who had been viewed as a likely no vote on impeachment. "The fundamental issue is that no individual is above the law and that democratic governance depends on trust."

    Again and again, members complained that by continuing to deny that he lied, by implicitly challenging a version of events that seems obvious to them, Clinton left them with no choice. Otherwise, they said, they would be validating his skewed notion of truth. Otherwise, they said, they would be chipping away at the rule of law. If a mother in a Connecticut custody battle has to testify truthfully, said Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), and so does a defendant in an Ohio courtroom, said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), then so does the Yale-educated lawyer who serves as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

    Kolbe, an openly gay moderate who was also considered one of the president's most likely Republican supporters, added to the White House gloom yesterday by announcing his decision to support impeachment.

    "What possible respect for the rule of law can any of us have, or demand of others, if our president is not held accountable for perjury just because he is president?" he asked at a Phoenix airport.

    The rule of law also weighed heavily on Porter, who had criticized the idea of impeachment in the past and had pushed for censure. Yesterday, he solemnly announced that he would vote to impeach Clinton, reminiscing about his father, a county judge in Illinois who believed fervently in the judicial system. His wife, Kathryn Porter, a human rights activist who opposes impeachment, said she did not know how he would vote until yesterday morning, when she heard him having a "soulful" conversation with their two-week-old grandson.

    "He's made his decision, and he'll have to live with it," said Kathryn Porter. "I guess I won't make him sleep on the couch."

    But her husband, John Porter, said, "It is time the president admitted he lied. What would serve him well is to level with the American people."

    The members gave similar reasons for their decisions, but they all took different journeys to make them, and some of them discussed those journeys in interviews yesterday.

    Ney said the question of impeachment has consumed him for weeks, depriving him of sleep, distracting him during a trip to pick up a Christmas tree with his children. He has discussed the issue at events around his district, with fellow residents in his small town who met him on the street and constituents who drove as far as six hours to see him in his office. In the end, he said he was swayed by children in his district, especially by a petition signed by several students in a Youth for Christ Bible study group in St. Clairsville. It began: "To err is human; to consistently lie, obstruct and waste is unacceptable."

    "The kids were pretty adamant," Ney said. "To them, it's simple. They would say: 'He lied, it's wrong. What are you going to do about it?' They said it over and over."

    Patrick Bilbray made a plea to his father, Rep. Brian Bilbray Tuesday afternoon at the family beach house in San Diego: "Dad, don't do it." But his father, a maverick Republican who went surfing while trying to decide how to vote, finally decided yesterday that he had to vote to impeach, regardless of the effect impeachment might have on his job security, the stock market or even the functioning of the government. The problem for Bilbray is that Clinton still insists he did not lie, and that just doesn't fit into his view of the world.

    Over the last week, many members went into semi-seclusion, trying to finalize their historic choices. Rep. Michael Forbes (N.Y.), a pro-labor Republican, thought about the case while walking along the beach in Long Island, the same beach where he decided in 1996 to become the first House Republican to oppose Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Boehlert sat alone in his apartment, thinking about high school students who had asked him about double standards. Rep. Chris John (La.) -- a conservative Democrat who finally decided to vote against impeachment yesterday, perhaps the only piece of good news for the White House -- has been considering the issue while dealing with a personal crisis: his wife gave birth to premature twins on Sept. 1. (They're doing fine; John has dubbed them "the impeachment babies.")

    Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.), a former florist and school teacher, tried to go about her normal family business while thinking about the issue, but it wasn't easy. "Do you know how weird it was to be hanging Christmas balls and talking about whether or not I should be impeaching the president of the United States?" she asked.

    Staff writers Steve Barr, William Booth, William Claiborne, Michael Colton, Patrice Gaines Carter, Helen Dewar, Thomas Edsall, Marcia Slacum Greene, Judith Havemann, John Mintz, Dan Morgan, Terry Neal, John Schwartz, Lena Sun, Roberto Suro, Steve Vogel contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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