Scandal shifts Congress' focus from legislation Constitutional questions, political apprehension detract from work on bills

September 11, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Elijah Cummings, retreating down the Capitol steps after a House vote, had just finished lamenting the fact that the looming threat of impeachment hearings was distracting the Congress and the country from important matters at hand.

That's when someone asked him what he'd voted on minutes earlier.

"Gee," the Baltimore Democrat said, a cloud falling over his face. "I can't remember Come on, Elijah I'm sorry "

Cummings never recalled the topic during the conversation. (For the record: The Migratory Bird Treaty. It passed.) Cummings insisted that such a lapse had more to do with being late for an appointment than being distracted by the Clinton scandal. But it is clear that Congress was more focused on talk of possible impeachment and presidential survival yesterday than other business.

"It just saddens me that this is the only thing people are talking about," said Cummings, adding that not a single constituent has told him that Clinton should resign. "This matter will be resolved sometime next year. My concern is, what happens in the meantime?"

Grim mood on Hill

If yesterday was any indication, that "meantime" won't be pretty. A grim mood gripped Capitol Hill like a hangover as lawmakers prepared to receive their personal copies of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report, the contents of which could lead to impeachment proceedings.

"It's tension-filled," said Rep. Merrill Cook, a Utah Republican and longtime Clinton critic. "People know this is a serious constitutional question."

Starr delivered 36 sealed boxes of grand jury evidence to Congress Wednesday. Those documents delve into questions of whether Clinton lied about and tried to cover up his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

For House Republicans, the day began with a meeting where GOP leaders warned members to use appropriate content in floor speeches on this seamy matter. Members were to call the House parliamentarian if they could not figure out exactly how and when to launch their Clinton rebukes. (They are not to make comments based on personalities or deliver overly personal attacks unless an impeachment-related resolution is on the floor.)

Stoic Clinton allies

Clinton allies, meanwhile, tried to be stoic. "We have problems everyday. This is just another problem," said Rep. Earl Hilliard, an Alabama Democrat. California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren said she refused to get "morose" and then zipped off to a meeting without elaborating.

But some lawmakers were privately angst-ridden. "I was having lunch with several members from both parties and the Republicans were saying, 'We need to do the right thing,' and Democrats were saying, 'These polls are killing us. We need to cut loose,'" said Cook.

Of course, Capitol Hill tried to conduct business as usual yesterday -- however usual that business is. Steel workers and home health care advocates canvassed the Hill, while the five-time Virginia state women's division hog-calling champion exhibited her signature pig calls in a demonstration against pork-barrel projects.

But few were listening. The hog-caller, Virginia Moyer, demonstrated her craft at a news conference on the Capitol grounds, and could be heard in the background on television interviews -- all of which focused not on her, but on the Starr report. It was about as close as her group, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, could get to prime time.

"I thought this would probably not get the coverage it deserves," she said, resigning herself to a pig call outside House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office.

Major bills flounder

Serious legislative efforts were mostly a lost cause yesterday.

Major bills such as campaign finance and Social Security slid into the background as lawmakers wondered how they would begin to handle the Starr report and still make their mid-October recess. When asked how he was doing, Terry Holt, the press secretary to Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner, replied simply, "My head hurts."

"The aides we're talking to, their attention is really more on what's going to be happening with the voting in their districts because of what Clinton has done," said Steven Rodriguez, a home health care advocate from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "They're more concerned if their representative is going to have a job."

For some, the flurry of scandal talk conjured somber memories. Rep. Floyd Spence, a South Carolina Republican in Congress for the last 28 years, said he used to dread the daily emergence of one damning accusation after another during Watergate.

ZTC "I don't want to go through that kind of thing again," he said. "Everyone was at everybody's throat, you were afraid to turn on the television in case something new came out."

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