Members of Congress take cautious stance on Clinton allegations Partisanship is muted as lawmakers await facts

January 23, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik DTC | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik DTC,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress who may ultimately control President Clinton's political fate expressed caution yesterday as they attempted to keep up with all the news conferences and startling revelations about his personal life.

Even Democratic lawmakers who typically defend Clinton from partisan attacks offered only qualified support for the president, saying the accusations of perjury, obstruction of justice and solicitation of perjury were too serious to ignore. And the Republican response was muted because they feared that partisan attacks would give Clinton an opportunity to deflect attention from a deteriorating situation.

"We're doing what we should be doing: keeping our mouths shut and watching like most Americans," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "Piling on is not going to endear us to anyone."

At the moment, Republicans are willing to defer any investigations of the fresh allegations against Clinton, to allow independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to conduct his inquiry. While remaining skeptical of the way Starr has handled previous inquiries, several Democrats said the accusations must be investigated thoroughly.

"This is so new and so stunning that we're just trying to absorb it," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I believe the president. He's denied these charges."

"It's a little difficult to understand how the special prosecutor looking at Whitewater is now looking at the president's personal life," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "But those are questions of process. The matters of substance are serious. If the allegations are proven, they are very, very serious. We need to get to the bottom of it and move on."

Diplomacy aside, some Republicans jammed into a Capitol Hill briefing room to plot the GOP's game plan: lay low, then force a weakened president to adopt a Republican agenda. Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, cautioned congressional Republicans to be diplomatic. The last thing they should do, he said, is turn the matter into a partisan battle.

Clinton's popularity among Democrats in Congress has suffered from the perception that he is not willing to sacrifice political capital for them. A series of defeats and retirements has left holdovers who are more liberal than the president and skeptical of much of his agenda.

Goeas called the rift Clinton's Achilles' heel, should he have to turn to congressional Democrats for support.

An aide to a senior House Democratic leader said White House officials would get support from Congress if they asked for it. So far, he said, they haven't, "and no one's going to be a cowboy and step out on their own."

Recent White House proposals have helped to mend fences with congressional Democrats, some aides said.

"This is not a question of goodwill among Democrats," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a liberal Democrat from New York City. "The fact is, there is goodwill."

Some Democrats, already in the minority, are concerned about the effect the president's fortunes could have on their prospects in the fall elections. For public consumption, however, members from both parties refused to look that far into the future.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland issued a four-sentence statement, saying: "We should not participate in finger pointing or harmful speculation." Several members of the Maryland delegation declined to comment, including Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is in Japan.

Most members of Congress who did speak refused to inject a partisan edge into the crisis.

"Nobody wins, Republican or Democrat, when a sitting president is having these kinds of problems. This isn't a day for Republicans to celebrate," said Rep. Elton Gallegly, an often tart-tongued Republican from California.

"If he encouraged or told someone to lie to the special prosecutor, that would be an impeachable offense," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "I just ask everybody, particularly politicians, to let the facts come out. Let's see what the facts are before we rush to judgment."

But others could not help themselves. Democratic Rep. Ron Klink of Pennsylvania alleged that Starr was in cahoots with lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones, who has filed suit claiming that Clinton sexually harassed her. Jones' lawyer reportedly deposed Clinton under oath Saturday about his alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 24-year-old former White House intern. Days later, newspapers reported that Starr's office was investigating the matter.

"I have a tremendous amount of skepticism about Republicans who, from the moment Clinton was put into office by the American people, have spent millions of dollars trying to do to him what they couldn't do at the polls," Klink said.

Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed such allegations out of hand, saying Starr has done nothing improper.

Nadler remained circumspect. "I hope the Republicans are not harsh to judge the president beyond where the evidence takes them because they're Republicans, and I hope the Democrats are not quick to support the president because of their party," he said. "If, God forbid, we are called upon to judge the president in some way, I hope we do it as Americans to protect the Constitution, not to advance some partisan end."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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