House fence-sitters come under pressure from both directions With committee's course set, White House seeks to sway a few Republicans

The Impeachment Hearings

December 11, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With a momentous impeachment vote in the House less than a week away, White House aides and congressional leaders furiously courted votes yesterday among undecided Republicans.

At the same time, the 37 members of the House Judiciary Committee -- 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats -- prepared to approve articles of impeachment this weekend, strictly along party lines.

The full House still appears likely to approve at least one article of impeachment next week, setting in motion a historic trial next year in which 100 U.S. senators would consider the fate of the Clinton presidency.

Nevertheless, White House aides say they believe they have time to sway enough votes among Republicans from districts where President Clinton fared well in the elections of 1992 and 1996. And Democrats hope that the public will awaken to the reality of the president's jeopardy once the committee completes its work and formally recommends Clinton's ouster from office.

"I think the American people still don't believe that we're foolish enough or partisan enough to do this," Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who as the Democratic senator-elect from New York would serve as a juror in a presidential impeachment trial, said in committee debate last night. "I think the American people are waiting for us to come to our senses and end this political game of chicken."

Time may be running out for Clinton. The Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, put the committee members on notice that a consideration of articles of impeachment will likely stretch into the weekend and may not be completed until Sunday. The committee would then consider the Democrats' resolution of censure Tuesday, with a final House vote Thursday.

Meanwhile, as several top White House aides blanketed Capitol Hill with phone calls, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking House Republican and a fervent supporter of impeachment, stepped up his efforts to hold his party in line.

The White House, for its part, urged undecided Republicans to ** support some punishment short of impeachment. Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, embraced a sternly worded censure resolution, drafted this week by three committee Democrats, that would rebuke Clinton for "reprehensible conduct" and "false statements."

Lockhart held out the possibility that the president himself might begin contacting wavering Republicans to seek their support.

The Democrats' censure motion is doomed to fail in the #i committee, dominated by Republican supporters of impeachment. But its champions hope the sight of the committee formally debating and voting on a censure proposal would build momentum behind the idea and compel Republican leaders to bring such a resolution to the full House for a vote.

House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston said he might allow a vote on censure if Hyde and the committee recommended one.

But DeLay has steadfastly held that no such vote will ever take place. A censure resolution could allow moderate Republicans to punish the president in a way that falls short of impeachment. And that could doom the Republicans' drive to saddle Clinton with only the second presidential impeachment in American history.

DeLay has said that next week's impeachment vote will be considered a vote of conscience, not a show of party unity. He has publicly vowed to exert no pressure in favor of impeachment.

But behind the scenes, the combative Republican whip, who is nicknamed "The Hammer," appears to be making his position abundantly clear.

"I don't think Tom is doing anything out of the ordinary," said Rep. Joe Knollenberg, a Michigan Republican. "He is the whip. It's his job to count."

Most undecided Republicans have remained silent, following Hyde's advice to withhold judgment until the committee has finished its work. Some Republicans did jump off the fence yesterday. Knollenberg, whose suburban Detroit district gave Clinton a plurality in 1996, said he would vote to impeach on a perjury count.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican who has worked closely with Clinton on health care legislation, declared that he would vote to impeach on all four counts, saying he was unswayed by the Democrats' defense.

"I said I wouldn't determine my vote until the fat lady sings," Norwood said. "Well the fat lady's singing, and Clinton's still lying."

Neither Norwood nor Knollenberg was high on the White House's list of Republicans who were thought likely to oppose impeachment. But the public pronouncements of any previously undecided Republicans tend to send ripples of anticipation through a taut congressional community eager to see which side may be building momentum.

This week, committee Republicans intentionally divided their case against Clinton into four separate impeachment articles, in part to ensure that at least one article can muster enough votes to pass the House and trigger a trial of the president in the Senate.

The tactic could work. An aide to Rep. Frank Riggs said the retiring California Republican was deeply moved by the Clinton defense made Wednesday by Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, and is now leaning against impeaching Clinton on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

But Riggs is leaning toward impeaching the president for perjury, the aide said.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt phoned 31 rank-and-file Democrats viewed as most likely to support impeachment. So far, only three Democrats -- Reps. Ralph M. Hall of Texas, Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia -- have announced plans to vote for impeachment.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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