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Vote may be costly for some Public mood makes impeachment risky electoral business


WASHINGTON -- With a House vote on impeachment likely within two weeks, members are facing a decision fraught with legal, moral and political implications: whether to vote to impeach a president for just the second time in history.

For the Republicans who control Congress, the decision is difficult enough -- the public widely opposes impeachment. But for those with an eye on higher office, such as Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, the vote could prove especially -- perilous.

Barring evidence that knocks down the allegations of lying under oath, obstructing justice and abusing power, Ehrlich says, he expects to vote to impeach President Clinton for his actions in the Monica Lewinsky matter.

"The allegations are very serious," said the 2nd District Republican, who is considering a run for Senate in 2000. "This is lying under oath, pursuant to proper discovery, in a civil case and in front of a grand jury. The whole spin that it's about sex is ludicrous, in my view.

"What the polls reflect is certainly relevant in a democracy," he added. "But you have to do what is right."

If, as is likely, the full House votes on one or more impeachment charges later this month, Ehrlich would be joined by two other Maryland Republicans -- Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, both of whom said Friday that they plan to vote for impeachment. None of the three expressed interest in a resolution to censure the president, an alternative being promoted mostly by House Democrats.

Gilchrest said he had canvassed more than a dozen lawyers and judges from his Eastern Shore district, some of them Democrats, in concluding that he would vote to impeach Clinton.

"The ones who I'm talking to are saying how important it is to the judicial system not to allow someone to be selectively honest," Gilchrest said.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, who represents largely Democratic Montgomery County and is one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, says she will probably vote against impeachment. Morella has consistently argued that the evidence does not indicate that Clinton's offenses, stemming from behavior in his private life, have risen to a level of severity that requires impeachment, which would put Clinton on trial in the Senate.

The state's House members say they have heard from few constituents about the issue in the past week, though some suggested that voters would focus on it more as the vote draws near. In Ehrlich's district, callers appear to favor impeachment.

The vote of each Republican is crucial because of the party's slim majority in the House. If more than about a dozen House Republicans oppose impeachment, the vote would probably fail.

Ken Ruberg, a Republican consultant, cautioned that it is impossible to know, two years before the next election, whether any single vote, even one this momentous, would decisively help or hurt an individual lawmaker.

"If I were one of them, I think I'd be on the fence," Ruberg said. "The pending vote places many moderate Republicans in a true bind that they have not yet figured out how to address."

Of Maryland's four House Democrats, three have said they will vote against impeachment: Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County.

The fourth Democrat, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County, is expected to vote against impeachment as well. Cardin said he will withhold judgment until he has read the final articles of impeachment, likely to be passed by the House Judiciary Committee this week. Still, Cardin said, "My final decision is unlikely to surprise you."

Political careers were made and lost in the wake of the Watergate impeachment hearings. Across the country, challengers successfully used the issue to defeat many House Republicans who had adamantly defended President Richard M. Nixon.

But whereas Nixon's standing plummeted during his impeachment crisis, Clinton remains popular. Polls show that most Americans oppose Clinton's impeachment, suggesting that there is just one major constituency in favor: conservative Republicans.

That dynamic could complicate a bid by Ehrlich in two years for the post of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat. Ehrlich occupies a safe House seat in a relatively conservative district that includes Harford County, much of eastern and north Baltimore County and a slice of Anne Arundel County.

A vote for impeachment could help Ehrlich with the party faithful in a Republican primary. But it might hurt him in a general election in a state dominated by Democrats.

If an impeachment trial were drawn out in the Senate next year, the same dynamic could emerge for other Republican lawmakers considering statewide contests, such as Reps. Rick A. Lazio and Peter T. King of New York and Christopher Cox of California.

"Any career politician thinks about the political consequences of any significant vote and tries to avoid taking stances that will come back and bite him someday," said Gary Jacobson, a congressional scholar at the University of California at San Diego. "They don't have to remind themselves. It's instinctual -- they just do it.

"Predictably," Jacobson said, "the only Democrats who will vote for impeachment will be from conservative districts, and the only Republicans who will vote against it will come from predominantly liberal districts."

Ehrlich, who has established a fairly conservative record in Washington, has spent much of the past week in London with his wife, Kendel, at a bipartisan conference of American and European lawmakers. It is a December activity more typical for House members than grappling with a matter as grave as a presidential impeachment.

Speaking by telephone at his London hotel room Friday evening, Ehrlich said he had heard no conflicting evidence, no credible explanation -- nothing at all -- from the White House to persuade him to oppose impeachment.

"Serial perjury and obstruction of justice are impeachable," Ehrlich said. "The facts, to this point in time, have gone unchallenged by the White House, and the facts are quite serious."

Ehrlich, a lawyer, said that Clinton's misleading answers under oath undermined the integrity of the legal system.

"I took depositions as an attorney," Ehrlich said. "My wife is a prosecutor. I know the ramifications if witnesses are allowed to lie."

In the past week, Ehrlich said, a Democratic friend who is also a lawyer called and urged him, for the sake of his political future, to vote against impeachment.

"I asked him what he thought about it as a lawyer, and the guy did a 180 [degree turn]," Ehrlich said. "This all goes to the rule of law. If I did [vote on the basis of public reaction], I shouldn't collect my paycheck, really."

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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