Morella's office besieged by calls on impeachment Maryland Republican is answering no questions

December 15, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Constance A. Morella, a genial Montgomery County Republican who is highly popular in her district, has nonetheless become a marked woman.

She hit the trifecta this week. All three major news magazines -- Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report -- highlighted Morella as a key member of the most scrutinized political club in the land today: the moderate House Republican who is publicly undecided about impeachment.

And so Morella is suddenly absorbing a blizzard of attention, mainly from those who, unlike her, have had no trouble making up their minds about impeachment. One call after another rolled into Morella's Capitol Hill office yesterday, tying up all five outside telephone lines and some of the internal ones, too.

The callers' opinions, which lean slightly against impeaching President Clinton, are being tallied on hundreds of small yellow message slips and crammed into overflowing boxes marked "Impeach" and "Don't."

"I wonder if some of these people are calling again," sighed Kate Dickens, Morella's office manager, as she sorted the yellow slips. "Is there anybody left in the district?"

In between meetings, Morella darted out of her personal office to check on her beleaguered staffers. She stopped to shake hands with seven people crowded in her foyer, including some regional trade officials and a delegation of local activists seeking to close a park to traffic. But she had nothing to say about impeachment.

"She has said that she is not going to take a position on this issue until she gets an opportunity to read the Judiciary Committee's report," said Bill Miller, her chief of staff. That report will not be delivered to House members until tomorrow -- a day before Thursday's historic debate.

A Morella vote to impeach Clinton could alienate the voters who sent her to the House. Morella, one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, is well-liked in her district, which backed Clinton in the 1996 presidential election by a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent. Among Republicans publicly undecided on impeachment, only Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas represents a district that gave the president a bigger victory margin in 1996.

"Some of these holdouts are desperately looking for any way out of the impeachment process," said Frank Luntz, a leading Republican consultant. "They believe politically that it could hurt them. But the president won't cooperate" by admitting that he lied.

Morella, 67, is in her sixth term. She maintains her popularity in a mostly Democratic district by voting with Democrats on some highly charged issues such as abortion and the environment. But she could incur the anger of fellow Republicans if she votes against her party on this one.

"Connie Morella will have to search her conscience and cast her vote," said Richard D. Bennett, the new chairman of the state Republican Party. "If she votes against impeachment, that will certainly be very disappointing, to say the least, for rank-and-file Republicans."

Though her job appears secure for the foreseeable future, Morella has signaled that she may be interested in seeking the seat of Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in the 2000 elections. Any Republican dissatisfaction with her could translate into a tough primary challenge from a more conservative candidate, such as Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.

BTC On the other hand, in a general election for statewide office, Maryland's predominantly Democratic electorate might look favorably on a vote against impeachment. And prominent Democrats, including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, have talked with Morella about her vote.

Unlike Reps. Rick A. Lazio of New York, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and others who have used the occasion to anguish publicly about their Hobson's choice on national television, Morella has kept her counsel private.

Miller deflected requests yesterday from reporters seeking interviews with Morella. The more that's said publicly about the congresswoman, Miller noted, the more calls flood her offices.

"Why would she [talk publicly], other than to satisfy the press?" Miller asked. "To her constituents, what she does is important because they've had an opportunity to see their representative do what they elected her to do -- and with their views heard."

Morella has stepped carefully while talking about the issue of impeachment this fall.

In September, after the Republican-run Judiciary Committee chose to release Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony, Morella criticized the decision.

"I have a concern it does not establish a climate that is nonpartisan, and that is a serious matter," she said then.

In October, as her Democratic election opponent tried to associate her with Republicans actively seeking Clinton's impeachment, Morella said: "I don't look for an impeachment. I hope they don't find grounds for it."

Late last week, however, Morella took pains to praise the presentation of the Judiciary Committee's Republican counsel, David Schippers, who made an expansive and emotional case for impeaching Clinton. "I think Schippers did a very good job," she said.

Since then, there has been silence -- except for the continuous din of the telephones at her office.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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