WASHINGTON -- With Republicans of all political stripes voicing their opposition to impeachment, House Judiciary Committee Republicans may be increasingly isolated as they continue their uphill fight to remove President Clinton from office.
Impeachment hearings are only a week away, but cracks in the Republican ranks are beginning to show. GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, a prominent voice on judicial matters, called yesterday on the House to drop its impeachment probe, saying it could prove "devastating to the country."
The Pennsylvania Republican was joined by Rep. Mark E. Souder, a conservative House Republican from Indiana.
"The question is, do you overturn a presidential election based on what we have in front of us? Right now, I'd be a 'no,' " Souder said, noting the party sustained losses in last week's election believed to be related to the issue. "At some point, doesn't our practical political antenna give off the signal that says, 'Whoa'?"
As Souder spoke, the number of GOP House moderates expressing doubts on impeachment grew to more than a half-dozen.
"I do see a definite lessening of ardor to move the impeachment process forward among Republican moderates," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican.
But Judiciary Committee members are showing no inclination to pull back the reins. Their first hearing is set for next Thursday, when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will lay out his charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering arising from the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The committee's Republican staff has produced a report on the precedents for impeachment that establishes "clear guiding principles" that appear to call for the president's removal. After outlining the cases against the three federal judges impeached since Watergate, the report concludes that "making false statements under oath has been the most common compelling basis for impeachment."
The staff explicitly rejected arguments that judges should be held to a different standard than other officeholders, concluding pointedly, "impeachable offenses can involve both personal and professional misconduct."
Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde hopes to vote on articles of impeachment by mid-December, leaving it to Republican leaders to decide whether to call a special House session to consider the matter this year.
Hyde's fellow committee Republicans insist that they cannot be distracted by predictions that the votes do not exist to pass articles of impeachment in the House, much less convict the president in the Senate.
"I don't believe the framers of the Constitution intended for members of the House to count votes before carrying out our constitutional duties," said senior Judiciary Committee Republican Charles T. Canady of Florida. "At some point, I think we're going to vote on articles of impeachment."
But outside the committee, Republicans are beginning to propose alternatives to an impeachment showdown. Specter called on the House to drop the impeachment -- with the understanding from Starr that Clinton would be indicted for criminal perjury and obstruction of justice as soon as he leaves office.
The senator also offered a plea bargain in which Clinton would leave office immediately in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
White House officials said Clinton was not about to consider that offer.
"The president intends to and will serve out his term," said White House spokesman James Kennedy.
Still, Democrats and Republican alike said it was significant such proposals are being floated.
"Republicans are clearly looking for a rhetorical way out, a way to give up the ghost on this thing," said a Democratic Judiciary Committee aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Specter was emphatic in his plea for a new tack. Pursuing impeachment, he said, would be "devastating for the country," tying the House, Senate and presidency in knots and "incapacitating" the Supreme Court, as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would have to conduct a trial on the Senate floor if the House approves articles of impeachment.
"People are in search of some alternatives to this gargantuan impeachment process, which is going to lead nowhere," said Specter, adding, "The House is not sure where they're going. I wouldn't say they're in disarray, but they don't know where they're going."
Some Republicans, including House conservatives such as Souder, are floating other proposals: Hyde could draft "preliminary" articles of impeachment but send them to the full House with no recommendations. That would allow the presumed incoming speaker, Robert L. Livingston, to set the matter aside and wait for findings from investigations that conservatives see as far more politically charged, such as fund-raising improprieties involving Chinese citizens and irregularities in the 1996 Teamsters election.