On Capitol Hill, impeachment thoughts not so distant any more

September 11, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It is not clear just when it happened, but in recent days, there's been a sea change in the discussion of the possibility President Clinton could be impeached.

For most of the eight months the Monica Lewinsky affair has dominated Washington, the conventional wisdom has been that nothing would result from the investigation that would result in the president being forced from office. The litany has been that this is not Watergate. There are no suggestions Mr. Clinton tried to subvert the Constitution as Richard M. Nixon did 25 years ago.

But speculation based on leaked disclosures of testimony is one thing and the reality of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report to Congress is quite another. Finally, the nation will be shown whether there is evidence that Mr. Clinton may be guilty of more than a dalliance with a White House intern.

The White House is insisting that, as Clinton lawyer David Kendall put it, "There is no basis for impeachment." If he is correct, the president's supporters will be vastly relieved and can begin to argue that it is time to put the whole thing into the past and get on with the nation's business.

But the Democrats in Congress were misled by the president for months by his denial that there had been a sexual relationship at all. So they are not inclined to take at face value the denials of Mr. Kendall or, for that matter, Mr. Clinton himself.

Rumors on the report

The reservations of these Democrats are being nourished by the flood of rumors that have circulated in Washington in the past 10 days about particulars of the president's conduct that would be described in the Starr report. What these politicians fear is that further disclosures could be seen as new evidence that Mr. Clinton has been less than candid with them despite his Aug. 17 speech acknowledging the affair with Ms. Lewinsky.

The Democrats are also uneasy about the impact of the report on the Nov. 3 midterm elections. They no longer believe opinion polls that have said for months that Americans were drawing a distinction between the president's official performance and personal conduct. The Starr report has supplanted baseball great Mark McGwire as the dominant story.

The attitude of the Democrats in Congress is critical in determining the consequences of whatever Mr. Starr has recommended. The Republicans control both houses, but they are smart enough to know that they could not carry out an impeachment process without a bipartisan consensus -- just as Democrats recognized when they were weighing the impeachment of Nixon in 1974.

So far the Democrats have been conspicuously reluctant to commit themselves to Mr. Clinton -- or, except in a few isolated cases, to condemn him as unfit to finish the final two years of his second term. They have described themselves as "disappointed" but not ready to pass a final judgment on the president.

Few Clinton friends on Hill

Mr. Clinton's problem with the Democrats is exacerbated by the fact the president has so few close allies or personal friends in either house of Congress. His closest ally from Arkansas, David Pryor, left the Senate two years ago. Another senator who had been considered close, Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, has taken the lead in excoriating Mr. Clinton for his behavior, though without taking any position on whether he should be impeached or forced to resign.

There are some tricky shoals for the Republicans to negotiate as well. The principal danger is that they will be seen as piling on the president for their own partisan purposes and thus inspire a backlash from the voters. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich clearly had this concern in mind when he urged his colleagues to follow "rules of civility" in dealing with the issue on the House floor.

Mr. Gingrich and the highly respected chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, have enough influence to keep most of their members in line. But there is a vocal minority of hard-liners among the Republicans demanding Mr. Clinton's resignation or impeachment even before seeing the Starr report.

Just how this scenario plays itself out is anyone's guess. If the report doesn't provide a solid factual basis for an impeachment hearing, the president could walk away from the whole affair with his position, if not his stature, intact.

But if the report provides new material that is seen as evidence of further wrongdoing by the president, the possibility of impeachment -- a long shot even a month ago -- becomes realistic.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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