Undecided lawmakers given grass-roots lobbying blitz Traditional phone banks joined by mass e-mailings

The Impeachment Hearings

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

WASHINGTON -- On Capitol Hill, the official mantra among lawmakers is that they must "vote their conscience" on impeachment. But as lobbyists both inside and outside the city mobilize campaigns, lawmakers and their consciences are not exactly being left alone together.

Good old-fashioned lobbying is in full swing.

Grass-roots organizations, working with Washington groups seeking to influence the outcome of the historic impeachment vote anticipated in the House next week, are activating telephone banks and petition drives to sway lawmakers on the issue.

Even as the White House seeks to mobilize, many activists on both sides of the issue agree that to this point, the conservatives have dominated in the size and scope of their outreach.

The Christian Coalition says it sent more than 250,000 petitions to Congress urging the ouster of President Clinton as the proper result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- and recently got so many phone calls from people seeking to add their names that the group's phones were jammed for 1 1/2 hours.

"Churchgoing Americans want to make sure that their voices are heard," said Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate.

On the other side, Democratic politicians, party officials and business leaders have been stepping up their campaign on Clinton's behalf.

The Democratic National Committee said it has delivered talking points to hundreds of supporters across the country, including Clinton's traditional allies: women's groups, civil rights organizations and union leaders.

At the local level, more than 20,000 calls railing against impeachment poured into the offices of People for the American Way each day this week, the liberal advocacy group said. And an Internet site dubbed "Move On" continued to collect names for its petitions against impeachment.

"I feel like we've had the silent majority problem," said Joan Blades, who started the Move On site (www.moveon.org) with her husband after the two left their software business in Berkeley, Calif. "Somehow just sending one letter doesn't feel like it does it. We're just trying to help give people a voice who don't want to see impeachment go forward."

For weeks, pro-impeachment forces have been working all their resources.

Gary Bauer, who heads the conservative Family Research Council and American Renewal groups, is telephoning lawmakers and telling them to ignore the polls showing the country opposes impeachment, his spokeswoman said.

On the Internet, the names and numbers of Republican fence-sitters who may break with their party and vote against impeachment are popping up in mass e-mailings. On the airwaves, conservative talk show hosts are urging listeners to phone their representatives.

"People are calling the show. They feel helpless," said radio personality Alan L. Keyes, a Republican who has made failing bids for president and for a Senate seat from Maryland. "They're saying to me, 'Congress is doing this wrong. Help me.' We try to give them a sense of empowerment, tell them, 'Yes, members of Congress do pay attention to your phone calls.' "

But anti-impeachment forces have a voice in at least one major group: the AFL-CIO. The labor organization is calling moderate Republicans and other lawmakers in an attempt to stop the impeachment proceedings. The group argues that a lengthy impeachment process will tie up the House and Senate, bogging down other critical legislation.

"We're not telling members of Congress how to vote," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Deborah Dion. "We're telling [them] that our members are interested in moving on with the patient bill of rights and Social Security. We are very worried about what's going to happen with issues important to working families."

Many other Washington lobbyists are staying mum on the impeachment issue, fearful of alienating lawmakers whose support they will need on future matters.

"Most of the business community, if they had an opinion, knows better than to stick their nose in there with members of Congress. It's going to get chopped off," said Mark W. Isakowitz, a Republican lobbyist with corporate clients. "The rule most people follow is you don't bring it up with members of Congress unless they bring it up with you."

But some conservative activists are letting it be known they will confront members of Congress on this issue, and they will not forget who abandons the party line.

"I think we should encourage our people to run against anyone who votes against impeachment," said William Shearer, national committee chairman for the U.S. Taxpayers Party, a conservative political organization. "If they vote against impeachment based on the evidence before the committee at this point, then they deserve the opposition."

The effect of this lobbying is unclear. In Capitol Hill offices, the calls are coming fast and furiously. The New Jersey chapter of the Christian Coalition recently aimed a phone campaign at the office of New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, who is undecided on impeachment.

But not every member shares that experience: In the office of Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Maryland Republican who also is undecided, the calls seem motivated not by a lobbying machine but by individuals.

"It's not the kind of organized campaign you see on controversial issues. You can kind of tell when it's organized," said Morella spokeswoman Mary Anne Leary.

Washington veterans say no matter what side a lobbyist is on, this issue must be handled with care.

"This is no standard Washington issue," said Mike Lux, political director for People for the American Way. "Most people are nervous about heading up to the Hill on an issue that is so intense and so personal to lawmakers."

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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