Connie Morella's road to her impeachment vote Decision: For the Republican moderate from Montgomery County, it came down to 'my country, my conscience and my constituents.'

December 28, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Neighbors had tucked notes under the windshield of her husband's car. Actor Robert De Niro had telephoned to sway her. Someone rang her doorbell at 9: 20 one evening and handed her a petition.

So by the time Rep. Connie Morella finally approached the floor of the House of Representatives to reveal her decision, her stomach felt like it was tied in knots. In her 12 years in Congress, the moderate Republican from Maryland had never endured a more stressful week than the one leading up to the vote to impeach President Clinton.

Until her announcement the night before the historic vote, Morella was one of just a handful of undecided lawmakers -- a distinction that made her the center of a lobbying frenzy. Everyone from neighbors down the street to a sweaty exerciser at the gym to her daughter's colleagues had weighed in.

"I was invited to go on 'Geraldo,' 'Nightline' and the 'Today' show," Morella said, laughing. "I don't think Jerry Springer called, though."

Just about everyone else seemed to. Morella's office had to install a special voice-mail system ("Press one if you support impeachment ... Press two if you do not") to cope with hundreds of phone calls that came in in advance of the vote.

"My office manager had her picture in so many papers, because people couldn't get to me," said Morella, who snuck out back doors to avoid the press. "The Boston Globe ran a picture of her with the telephone messages. She made a Minneapolis paper. Her mother's putting together a scrapbook."

Through it all, Morella tried to remain focused. She collected materials she wanted to study: the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee's report, the Democrats' report, documents on impeachment proceedings, newspaper op-eds. She spoke to constitutional law experts. She listened to voters.

"I also searched my conscience as a grandmother and mother, in terms of what does this say to parents who are raising children," Morella said. Finally, it boiled down to "my country, my conscience and my constituents."

She reached her decision late on a Wednesday night, three days before the Saturday vote. She was alone in the study of her Montgomery County home. Her day had been somber: She had attended the funeral of a Damascus, Va., man she'd known, and as she drove home, her car radio announced the bombing of Iraq.

"Finally I got home, late, and thought, 'Can we as a country go through such a divisive, cumbersome trial that could drag on and could mean issues important to American people would be put aside?' " she said. "And what would we accomplish by doing this?"

President Clinton, she felt, had already been punished: "My feeling is he goes down in infamy, because he has a scarred legacy. And it's indelibly scarred."

The decision came to her then: A strong censure resolution would be the best conclusion.

But she didn't tell anyone yet. Instead, her staff drafted two speeches: one in favor of impeachment, one against. She didn't want word to leak out.

Critics have complained about her timing, saying Morella, who is considering a bid for statewide office, weighed in only after the outcome of the controversial vote had been essentially determined.

But Morella, whose district holds a strong Democratic base, said, "I didn't want to prematurely make a decision and have that be the center of attention for something as serious as this."

Oddly enough, Morella says she wasn't subjected to much arm-twisting by her congressional colleagues. The president's attorney, David Kendall, who is also a constituent, telephoned. So did Geraldine Ferraro. But only a few fellow members of Congress approached her: Democratic Rep. Jim Moran urged her to vote against impeachment, and some fellow moderates asked her to consider censure instead.

Finally, it was time for Morella to unveil her decision. "On Friday, my stomach troubled me all day. It was churning." Even usually simple procedures became complex: "Should I get the time to speak from the Republican side, when they're not going to like what I say, or the other side but then they'll know what I'm going to say?"

She made her announcement at 9: 45 p.m., 15 minutes before the debate closed. She was surprised when spectators in the visitor's gallery applauded. The next day, she was among just five Republicans to vote against impeachment.

When it was all over, she sought refuge in the most unlikely of places: the crowded aisles of a Toys 'R Us. She is, after all, a grandmother of 15.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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