WASHINGTON -- With the House expected to approve a formal impeachment inquiry today, President Clinton toned down White House lobbying campaign aimed at wavering Democrats and proclaimed yesterday that lawmakers should cast "a vote of principle and conscience."
"It's up to others to decide what happens to me, and ultimately it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there," the president told reporters in the Oval Office.
Under pressure a month before congressional elections, a number of Democrats will vote with Republicans today to approve an open-ended, Watergate-style inquiry, the third presidential impeachment proceeding in history and the second this century.
The only question is how many: Estimates of the number of Democratic defectors range from two dozen to more than 100. Most Democrats expect the figure to be around 50.
Anticipating the defections, Democrats shifted strategies yesterday, playing down the importance of the vote and gearing up to push for a speedy conclusion to the Monica Lewinsky matter.
"I wouldn't want to overrate or overstate its importance," Rep. Vic Fazio of California, the third-ranking House Democrat, said of the vote. The more critical decision, Fazio said, would come if and when the House votes on articles of impeachment that could lead to an impeachment trial in the Senate and perhaps end the Clinton presidency.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a freshman Democrat from California, said she had spoken with the president and his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles -- not about her vote, but to gain assurance that Clinton would be forthcoming once impeachment hearings begin. She said that he would.
Even some moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, have begun pressing party leaders to wrap up action on the Lewinsky matter as soon as possible. Morella said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had assured her that the House inquiry would end by Dec. 31.
Morella made clear that a vote today for an inquiry did not signal that she would ultimately vote to impeach the president.
"I am not for an impeachment," said Morella, who has always walked a fine line between her party leadership's demands and the wishes of her heavily Democratic district. "The country doesn't need that kind of disruption, and, at this point, it's not merited."
A gesture to Democrats
Under parliamentary rules, debate today would be limited to one hour. But Hyde has signaled that he would not oppose a Democratic request to extend that time. And in a gesture to the Democrats, Republicans said they would grant up to two procedural votes that, in effect, would let Democrats cast ballots for their alternative impeachment resolution.
Even as Clinton was insisting that he was not twisting Democrats' arms and his allies were downplaying the vote, White House and Democratic leaders continued to try to keep rank-and-file Democrats from defecting.
Democrats scrambled to toughen their resolution so members could later assert that they favored investigating Clinton's misdeeds even if they opposed the Republican resolution. Democrats favor an inquiry that would be limited in time and scope, but modified their original version, extending the time limit from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve.
Rather than limit the inquiry to alleged Clinton efforts to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky, the new Democratic resolution would consider any material sent to Congress by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. That could extend the inquiry to the Whitewater land deal that launched Starr's investigation, alleged misuse of FBI personnel files or the firing of White House travel office staff.
Yesterday, Starr said he could not "foreclose the possibility" of submitting evidence of impeachable offenses beyond the Lewinsky matter. "I can confirm at this time that matters continue to be under active investigation and review," Starr wrote to leaders of the House Judiciary Committee.
The Democratic resolution would bar the committee from considering matters referred to it by other committees or by the Republican leadership.
Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican heading a House investigation into allegations that the Clinton administration illegally helped transfer missile technology to China, has said his committee has uncovered nothing that would constitute an impeachable offense.
Yesterday, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who has doggedly pursued allegations of campaign finance abuses and misuse of FBI files, conceded that he has not found evidence directly implicating Clinton.
Presidential supporters continued to exert subtle pressure yesterday. A group of 40 freshman Democrats attended a White House meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who urged them to vote based on "what they think is right," according to Joe Lockhart, the president's spokesman.