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Clinton is losing key GOP centrists Likelihood increases that House will vote to impeach president; Evasive replies irked some


WASHINGTON -- Several moderate House Republicans declared their support yesterday for impeaching President Clinton for perjury, increasing the likelihood that the House will vote this month to impeach a president for only the second time in the nation's history.

Two of them, Marge Roukema of New Jersey and Greg Ganske of Iowa, suggested that recent predictions that 20 or more Republicans would defect to vote against impeachment would prove unfounded.

Another, Rep. Tom Campbell of California, said he is convinced that the president committed perjury, which the Republican called an impeachable offense.

"The spin out there is to make it look as though a rising tide of moderates is going to vote against impeachment," said Roukema, who is considered a bellwether for Northeastern Republican sentiment. "I don't sense that at all."

Ganske, who has infuriated Republican leaders by loudly questioning the party's stance on some social issues, circulated a six-page explanation of his support for impeachment to his colleagues, in part to counter expectations that moderate Republicans were deserting the cause in droves.

Another moderate, Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, who is still undecided, said: "I don't see a groundswell [of opposition to impeachment]. I honestly feel that members of Congress truly feel what the president has done is beyond all moral bounds. There's a much more genuine feeling about this than people think."

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote by the end of next week to send at least one article of impeachment to the full House, which is controlled by the Republicans who could approve the resolution by a simple majority vote.

A half-dozen House Republicans have said that they would vote against impeachment. But they, like many Democrats, would support some lesser punishment for Clinton, such as a resolution of censure. These Republicans have ventured that at least 20 others would follow suit.

But thus far, those others have failed to materialize. In part, moderates say, this is because many Republicans were infuriated by the president's evasive answers last week to 81 questions from the committee, and in part because the president's lawyer, David E. Kendall, failed to question the facts of the case against Clinton when he grilled independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Three Democratic representatives -- Ralph M. Hall of Texas, Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia -- have said they will vote for impeachment.

If the number of Republicans opposed to impeachment does not exceed about a dozen, an article impeaching Clinton for perjury could narrowly pass the House, possibly in two weeks.

Though the vote tallies remain fluid, even one Republican opposed to impeachment -- Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who once predicted that 20 Republicans would vote with him -- appears resigned to a majority House vote for impeachment.

"This thing is out of the box," he said. "We can't put it back in, and it may blow up in our faces."

Support for a perjury charge began to coalesce yesterday even as committee Republicans made progress in their efforts to expand the inquiry beyond Monica Lewinsky to campaign fund-raising abuses. The president's lawyers also accepted an invitation to mount a defense of the president before the committee Tuesday.

Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, and Gregory B. Craig, the special counsel, said in a letter to the committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, that they will "present a vigorous defense of the president."

But before they appear Tuesday, Ruff and Craig demanded that the committee release all the evidence it has collected since Starr sent his impeachment report to Congress in September, including evidence that Clinton groped Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer, and any new campaign finance allegations.

The fund-raising allegations were under scrutiny by committee lawyers yesterday, after federal District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson reversed her earlier ruling and decided to let the committee review four documents that purportedly accuse the president of violating fund-raising laws in his 1996 re-election campaign.

But Johnson imposed such strict curbs on access to the material that it was unclear how the committee could use the information.

One Republican aide and one Democratic aide yesterday were allowed to review the documents, which contained secret grand jury material. They were not allowed to copy them or take notes. And they could report their findings only to Hyde and to the committee's lead Democrat, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.

The judge would have to approve any wider dissemination of the information. The documents include memos from FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force. Both memos recommended the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether the president violated campaign finance laws.

After hinting earlier that the documents would contain explosive revelations, Republicans downplayed that possibility yesterday.

"I hope we don't find any evidence of impeachable offenses, but it's incumbent on us to take a look," said Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, a committee Republican.

Democrats predicted that the campaign finance investigation would soon fizzle. James Jordan, a spokesman for the committee's Democrats, said Johnson's order showed that she saw nothing in the documents relevant to the impeachment of the president.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a senior committee Democrat, was blunter: "They will look at the report. They'll see LaBella thought there was enough evidence for an independent counsel because [fund-raising abuses] could, possibly, maybe lead to the president. But you don't impeach on could, possibly, maybe."

Impeachment advocates said a quick end to the campaign finance diversion would actually bolster their cause.

Democrats have painted the latest twist as evidence that the impeachment inquiry is out of control, just as a Republican consensus was forming around the notion that the president lied under oath. By the time the committee is scheduled to vote next week on articles of impeachment, the campaign finance gambit may have already faded.

Supporters of impeachment, such as Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking House Republican, are discounting the momentousness of a House impeachment vote, portraying it as akin to a grand jury indictment.

The pivotal step would come at a Senate trial, when senators would have to decide whether to remove Clinton from office. Never in history has the necessary two-thirds of the Senate voted to remove a president.

Indeed, some Republicans say that a House vote to impeach would, in effect, be no more severe than a vote to censure the president, since the Senate is so unlikely to convict Clinton.

This argument has infuriated some Democrats, who see it as demeaning the magnitude of the vote. "It's just outrageous," Frank said. "Of all the twisted arguments for impeachment, this trivialization is the worst."

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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