Md. Democrats acknowledge damage by Clinton scandal Capitol Hill lawmakers say agenda suffers

their trust in president is lower

September 02, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With Maryland Republicans stepping up criticism of President Clinton, three of the state's four House Democrats acknowledge that Clinton's admission that he lied about an affair with Monica Lewinsky has damaged the Democratic agenda and their trust in him.

"It makes it much more difficult," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who said his constituents still overwhelmingly support the president. In meetings this summer with senior House Democrats, Cummings said, "We pretty much agreed we'd give him the benefit of the doubt. When he comes out and said he had misled us, that doesn't leave you feeling too good."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, also a Baltimore Democrat, said: "Everything's going to be looked at in a jaundiced way. It's going to be extremely difficult for us to figure out a game plan without figuring out how to deal with the president. It's a tough position for Democrats."

Like many of their colleagues, Cardin and Cummings said they would await the delivery of the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to Congress, expected this fall, to determine whether the president committed perjury or obstruction of justice and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.

"There's no question that there's greater skepticism of the president as a result of this," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat who is a constant Clinton ally. "I think it's unfortunate.

"The president has clearly demonstrated an ability to stay focused on the country's business," Wynn said. "But you can't deny that this constitutes a major distraction."

Two Republican representatives who are often at ideological odds -- Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, a moderate, and the conservative Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland -- sharply criticized Clinton's character and stopped just shy of calling for him to resign. Each said the president had broken faith with lawmakers and the American public.

"I'm leaning toward" calling for Clinton's resignation, Gilchrest said. "It's over with the president. It's not so much what he did -- although that's bad enough -- but it's how he dealt with it. He mislead people for a long time. He put the blame for it on other people.

"I wouldn't want to be in a lifeboat with him and only limited supplies," Gilchrest said. "I'm usually not that hard on people, but I think the president has let a lot of people down."

Said Bartlett: "Had I done what the president had admitted to doing, I would resign. Had I done to my party, to my presidency, what he had done, I would resign. But I'm not the president."

Like another Republican, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, Bartlett said he wanted to reserve judgment until he has read Starr's report.

"He's never enjoyed a great deal of credibility with me to begin with," Ehrlich said. "This latest episode has only served to confirm the credibility gap he brings to policy. Certainly, the presidency is crippled, and that is never good for the country.

"If he is unable to operate as president, as commander in chief, obviously many people will call for the resignation of the president," Ehrlich said.

Neither of Maryland's Democratic senators -- Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes -- defended Clinton's actions in his private life or his subsequent false public denials of his affair. But both said he could continue to play a credible role in public policy. "I think that you need to compartmentalize it," Mikulski said. "Our experience on a policy level is that he's kept his promises."

Mikulski dismissed calls for Clinton's resignation from some Republican officials, one Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, and a scattering of Democratic candidates nationally.

"I think the world is so troubled that we need to maintain a sense of continuity of American leadership," Mikulski said. "That means the cooperation of an executive and a legislative branch that is focusing on the good of the nation and the stability of the world."

Sarbanes said the president could continue to exercise his institutional powers as president. "He still has the veto power," Sarbanes said yesterday. "You still need his signature on a piece of paper before it can become law."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland and a staunch Clinton backer, could not be reached for comment before he left for Moscow with the president Monday.

Hoyer recently told the Maryland Independent, "I believe he's hurt himself, he's hurt the presidency and he's hurt the country." But, Hoyer told the Waldorf-based newspaper, he thought Clinton's actions would not harm the prospects of Democratic programs in Congress.

Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, did not return calls seeking comment.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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