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Santorum Sees Risks in Vote on Clinton

Clinton Impeached

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  • By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A14

    PITTSBURGH – Rick Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, has been all over television of late, with commentators regularly giving him a chance to display his prodigious talent for bashing President Clinton.

    Instead, Santorum has offered diplomatic odes to the constitutional process, the importance of impartiality and the need for judicious consideration of fact. On ABC's "This Week," CNN's "Crossfire," CNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," it's been the same story line: nice Santorum. No sign of bombastic Santorum anywhere.

    "You see, it's not enough just that it's a crime or might be a crime," Santorum said in a recent interview. "We're not there to punish the president. We are only there to protect the Republic."

    To some degree, Santorum's public high-mindedness over Clinton's impeachment trial highlights the way things work in the upper chamber, where senators pride themselves on taking a more cerebral, judicious approach than the often rambunctious House. But it also reflects the differing politics at play as consideration of the president's fate shifts to the Senate this week.

    In the House, most members of both parties hail from relatively secure districts, dominated by one or the other major party. Most Democrats and Republicans could hew to the party line on last month's impeachment votes, with little risk to their own reelection prospects.

    Many senators, by contrast, must appeal to broader constituencies, and their latitude for staking out early strong positions on whether to convict Clinton is more limited, according to some analysts. Even a strong conservative such as Santorum is treading carefully for the moment, despite calls from the most vocal members of his party for conviction of the president.

    Santorum, like all of his colleagues, insists that he will make a decision on whether to remove Clinton from office without political calculation. But he makes it clear that he understands the political risks of decision-making in a diverse state that stretches from the urban streets of Philadelphia to the farms and villages in central Pennsylvania to the coal fields of the west.

    Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who appeared with Santorum on "Crossfire" last week, said he believes Santorum and every other senator will at least make an effort to be impartial. He also said it is impossible to completely extract politics from the equation.

    "If you were setting out to pick an impartial jury, who would suggest picking 100 U.S. senators?" Durbin said. "We all have our own political pedigree."

    Democrats in Washington already believe Santorum will be among the most vulnerable of Senate incumbents in 2000, a year in which the large crop of conservatives who won in 1994 – an aberration year, Democrats argue – will have to defend their seats. A vote to convict the president could be used to reinforce Santorum's image as too conservative for the state, a Democratic campaign official in Washington said this week.

    Santorum came to the Senate after knocking off liberal Sen. Harris Wofford (D) in 1994 on a 49 percent to 47 percent vote. Elections analyst Charles E. Cook Jr. said Santorum, who generally is considered more conservative than the Republicans who win statewide office in Pennsylvania, could be beaten, though the strength of his potential opposition is unclear at this point.

    Santorum generally votes with his party more than 90 percent of the time and has received a 95 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. By comparison, Pennsylvania's senior senator, Arlen Specter (R), votes with his party a little more than 60 percent of the time and received a 50 percent rating from the ACU in 1996.

    Pennsylvania political activists from opposite sides of the political spectrum say they will be watching Santorum closely with an eye toward 2000, when he will be one of 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats up for reelection.

    "He would have a terrible problem" if he voted to acquit, said Clay Mankamyer, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Pennsylvania. "That would be a very bitter pill for our people to swallow."

    Michael Geer, president of the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute, said Santorum must vote to convict or face the wrath of his conservative base.

    "The social conservatives in Pennsylvania would hope and indeed expect that Santorum and Specter would vote for conviction," Geer said. "So if there's an expectation that's not fulfilled, there would be some disappointment."

    Organizations on the left also have targeted Santorum. "Rick Santorum has never had a impartial thought in anything he's done in his life," said Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. "This guy is a zealous right winger. If he didn't have an election, he would be leading the fight to kick the president out of office."

    Santorum blazed into the Senate after four years in the House, where he was an acolyte of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The new senator quickly established himself, playing an important role in his party's effort to change the welfare system and ban what opponents describe as "partial-birth" abortions.

    Santorum, a youthful-looking 40-year-old, drew publicity and rebukes from some other senators for his confrontational style. In 1995, he accused Clinton of "telling bald-faced untruths." His use of "Where's Bill?" charts – a reference to Clinton – on the floor of the Senate infuriated Democrats.

    Santorum showed up at the King's Family Restaurant in Penn Hills shortly after 7 a.m. one day last week, looking alert – like he'd been awake for hours – dressed in a comfortable sweat shirt and eager to discuss the finer points of impeachment politics.

    He said he was aware that some of his detractors do not believe he can be impartial or that he can buck political pressure from his conservative base to oppose conviction. He said his respect for the Constitution and principles of justice outweighs all political calculations.

    "I deeply disagree with where this president wants to take the country, but I don't think that means he should be impeached," he said, adding that the Senate "should hold a trial and get enough facts as possible. How else do you go about establishing a record?"

    Some of those who know Santorum best have expressed surprise at his judicious approach to the biggest political scandal in a generation. Even his wife, Karen, an opinionated partisan herself, finds it hard to believe he hasn't made up his mind about Clinton's fate.

    "I say, 'Honey, I really don't know,'" the senator says, acknowledging that he risks energizing various constituencies either way he votes. "I think it's a lot easier in the end trying to figure out . . . the right thing to do than trying to figure out the complex political consequences of your vote," he said.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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