WASHINGTON -- Only in Bill Clinton's Washington could the start of an impeachment inquiry be spun into a victory for the president.
Clinton's staunchest defenders took heart yesterday as Congress opened the formal process that could lead to his removal from office: Fewer Democrats than expected had sided with the Republican plan for an open-ended investigation, alleviating the worst fears of Clinton and his advisers.
"We claim victory," said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Houston, an outspoken Clinton partisan on the House Judiciary Committee.
Another Democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, said she was "pleased and proud and happy" that the number of Democratic defectors had fallen far short of advance estimates.
At the White House, Clinton seemed remarkably unruffled for a man who had just become the third president in history to be subjected to a serious impeachment inquiry. His fate, he said, is "ultimately in the hands of God. There is nothing I can do."
His equanimity might have stemmed, at least in part, from the sense that yesterday's historic moment was less than momentous.
Surveying the largely empty House chamber, Democratic Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin demanded that members of both parties drop whatever they were doing elsewhere "and get their tails here." Relatively few did.
"It is remarkable that the American people are not watching this with bated breath," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster. The reason they aren't, he said, is that "they regard this as a political game. People don't think the president is going to be impeached."
Public opinion could change, but for months a majority of Americans has favored keeping Clinton in office.
The only poll that counts, as politicians love to say, will come less than four weeks from now, when elections are held in all 435 House districts. The magnitude of expected Republican gains in the House -- and in the Senate, which has the power to vote the president out of office -- could determine the strength of the impeachment effort.
As they concluded their pre-election action on the matter, Republicans appeared to have blundered or at least to have been outfoxed.
Their failure to attract more Democratic support could have a direct impact on the Nov. 3 election, analysts said.
Independent pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center said the partisan split in the House vote "might galvanize opinion and make impeachment a party issue."
Disapproval of GOP
According to the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, the public disapproves of the way Republicans are handling the charges against Clinton by 58 percent to 34 percent.
Republican strategists have acknowledged that support for Democratic candidates has risen over the past 10 days. They trace the backlash among loyal Democratic voters to the House's release of the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony and of thousands of pages of material from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation.
Some Republicans criticized their party for allowing the House action to be portrayed in partisan terms.
One, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, said Republican leaders should have defined the Democratic alternative -- which virtually every Democrat supported -- as a free pass for Clinton. Democrats should have been forced to vote for the Republican measure, she said, unless they wanted to be seen as overly supportive of a president who she said had committed potentially impeachable offenses.
"Our GOP spin was framed incorrectly," she said. "The Republicans let the Democrats off the hook too easily by framing the Democratic proposal as a pro-investigation proposal, which it clearly was not. It gave the Democrats the feeling that 'If I vote for the Democratic version, I can say I'm voting for an investigation.' And that's not true."
Republicans also appeared to have been outmaneuvered in the days leading up to the vote. White House aides -- and some Capitol Hill Republicans -- had predicted that 70 Democrats or more might support the Republican proposal for an open-ended congressional impeachment investigation. Republican leaders did nothing to discourage that forecast.
'White House spin'
"I think the expectation [of high numbers of defections] was White House spin," said Rep. John Edward Porter, an Illinois Republican. "That raised expectations."
But he added, "Obviously I had hoped for more."
A large Democratic vote for the Republican proposal would have bolstered the credibility of the impeachment inquiry and undercut Democratic claims that the process lacks legitimacy because it isn't broadly bipartisan. Instead, fewer than one in six House Democrats joined the unanimous Republican side.
An early indication that Democrats saw political advantage in opposing the GOP proposal came when Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, took the floor to denounce the impeachment effort.
A Schumer strategist predicted that the congressman would gain support among swing voters who want to see Congress move beyond impeachment and tackle other problems.
Most Democrats appeared to have taken the advice of party consultants, such as pollster Stanley Greenberg, who warned that Democrats would pay a price on Election Day if they endorsed an open-ended investigation because that might prompt some core Democratic voters to stay home.
Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee said the votes had more to do with the Democrats' distaste for the way the Republicans framed the impeachment debate than with a strong sense of party unity.
'A partisan issue'
"I think it's more of a mishandling by Republicans," he said. "I think the Republicans' pushing it just demonstrates it's a partisan issue for them. [Democrats] just perceived it as an unfairness of the procedure."
Of the 31 Democrats (out of 206) who defected, seven are regarded as vulnerable in next month's election. The rest come from conservative districts where voters are more critical of Clinton's behavior and support for him is weak.
Strategists on both sides say they don't know whether the impeachment question will be decisive in the election. Either way, the results are likely to be interpreted as a referendum on Clinton and impeachment, and that could determine whether the House decides to bring articles of impeachment against the president.
That was the view of one Democrat who considered siding with " the Republicans yesterday but wound up sticking with his party. "We will know at midnight, Eastern time, on Nov. 3 whether we will have an impeachment vote," Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey said.
Pub Date: 10/09/98