Morella won't say how she will be voting She is the sole unknown in Maryland's delegation

December 16, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Put aside the policy papers and pick up the phone. Everyone working on Capitol Hill has become a receptionist this week, as the pressure builds toward a House vote on impeaching President Clinton.

The tension is particularly acute in the offices of the dwindling number of House lawmakers who have yet to say how they will vote at tomorrow's meeting of the House. Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County is the only Marylander whose position remained in doubt, although her peers widely expect her to vote against impeachment.

"We've had 16,000 e-mails since last Friday. Twenty-seven hundred calls. We haven't counted the letters," said Bill Miller, Morella's chief of staff. "The fax machine is jammed, so we don't really know about that."

Avoids spotlight

For Morella to become the focus of national attention, as she has this week, is highly uncharacteristic for the soft-spoken moderate, who has tended to avoid the spotlight.

In the past week, as the impeachment articles were approved by the House Judiciary Committee and sent to the full House, the issue has stirred a relatively complacent public to flood their Washington representatives with their opinions.

Maryland's eight representatives are reeling from the sheer volume of calls, e-mails and letters they have received.

"It has paralyzed our computers," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "It is affecting our ability to get anything else done."

The House telephone switchboard went down for a time yesterday, and citizens seeking to gain access to the Web sites or e-mail addresses of representatives via the primary congressional Web page often could not get through.

House e-mail servers handled more than one million electronic messages yesterday. The normal daily level: 80,000.

Even though most have already made up their minds, lawmakers say they want to hear from their constituents on weighty matters such as impeachment: It is cathartic for the community, as Cardin says. But that translates into little else getting done.

When Elena Temple, the spokeswoman for Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, was asked what was happening otherwise, she retorted, "There is no otherwise. And there will be no otherwise until Saturday."

Sorting the mail

Through Caller-ID, and requests for zip codes, Capitol Hill workers attempted to sort out who was really a voter from their district and who was not. And they tried to identify which calls and messages came from coordinated campaigns, such as phone banks set up by unions or religious groups.

People for the American Way, a liberal lobby group, claimed credit for getting more than 174,000 calls against impeachment to House members yesterday.

Maryland's representatives are using different ways to measure

reaction, but most appeared to register popular opinion as supporting the stance of the person they called.

Wynn, who opposes impeachment, logged more than 200 calls yesterday -- about 5 to 1 against. Cardin had several hundred callers only slightly warmer to the idea of impeaching the president.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who favors censuring Clinton, has seen sentiment fairly equally divided, and calls are coming in 10 times more frequently than they usually do at this time of year.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is a stalwart supporter of the president, received roughly 1,500 e-mails on the topic since Thursday, which would be an unusually high volume for any other subject.

Ehrlich gets 700 calls

Since Friday, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, has received about 700 calls. The telephone calls to the offices of Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore have not relented, either. "People recognize that this is now a moment of decision," said Lisa Lyons Wright, Bartlett's spokeswoman.

Besides Morella, all three Maryland Republicans say they will vote on at least one count to impeach the president.

"Overnight, there were 47 phone messages waiting for us," Gilchrest spokeswoman Catherine M. Bassett said last night. "Our chief of staff can't get through to the [Washington] office -- our circuits are busy."

The feelings expressed are no less intense than the volume of the messages. In writing to Gilchrest, whose district includes the state capital, one Annapolis lawyer apologized that his secretary had signed the letter. He would have signed it himself, the correspondent explained, but he was lying in a bed in a hospital ward awaiting a heart transplant.

"People aren't willing just to call and tell you what they think," said Temple, Wynn's spokeswoman. "They want to explain why."

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