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Both sides woo the few undecided moderate Republicans Clinton forces struggle to find votes in House; THE IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS


WASHINGTON -- With a House impeachment vote less than a week away, the White House and congressional leaders have made a furious scramble for the handful of undecided moderate Republicans who hold the president's fate in their hands.

Alarmed at the public defection of a northeastern Republican yesterday, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, fired off a letter to House members, pleading with them to withhold judgment until the committee has voted on articles of impeachment.

He also began calling wavering Republicans. The conversations so far have gone "swimmingly," Hyde said.

At the same time, three of the 31 Democrats who voted in October, along with the Republicans, to hold an impeachment inquiry drafted a letter of their own.

Their letter demands that Republican leaders allow a House vote on an alternative punishment, such as censure, for the president.

Republican leaders remain hopeful of persuading a handful of the 31 Democrats to vote for at least one article of impeachment.

With time running out, the White House finds itself with little room to fight. Presidential aides and House Democrats concede that the 21 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have already decided to approve at least one article of impeachment for consideration by the full House.

And only seven of the House's 228 Republicans have publicly stated their inclination to vote against impeachment. The seventh, Rep. Amo Houghton of New York, published a newspaper column yesterday in which he pleaded for a chance to vote on a sharp rebuke of the president, and even appealed for forgiveness in the spirit of the holiday season.

"It has often been said that when the only tool you own is a hammer, sooner or later everything begins to look like a nail," he wrote. "We should search for other tools in our tool chest."

Houghton's defection might be significant. Nearly half the seven Republicans publicly leaning against punishment are New Yorkers: Houghton, Peter T. King and Jack Quinn. Another, Christopher Shays, represents a district in Connecticut.

Republican leaders are concerned that the trend could pull other area moderates along, including Reps. Sue W. Kelly, Michael P. Forbes, Rick A. Lazio, Benjamin A. Gilman, Sherwood L. Boehlert and John M. McHugh, all of New York, as well as Connecticut's other Republican, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson.

To avoid the stain of impeachment, Clinton would likely need the votes of every one of them and probably more, possibly up to 20 Republican votes in all. That may be too high a mountain to climb.

For one thing, the House may be more politically polarized today than it has been for decades.

The Republican tidal wave of 1994 swept away conservative southern Democrats who might have voted in favor of impeachment. Moderate Democrats from the Plains states and Mountain states have also almost disappeared. Likewise, the Democratic election backlash of 1996 rid the House of several moderate Republicans from the Northeast.

That has left most House Republicans with districts whose TC voters are conservative and fervent proponents of impeachment.

Republicans represent only 31 districts in which Clinton won a clear majority of votes in 1996. Clinton carried a plurality or majority in barely one-fourth of the nation's Republican House districts, the lowest level of "split-ticket" voting since 1952.

Most Republicans won their seats handily and fear no repercussions for a vote for impeachment. That has left the White House with few places to turn in its appeal to Republican moderates, even though polls suggest that about two-thirds of the nation opposes impeachment.

Clinton is battling more than demographics. The full weight of the conservative political establishment is leaning hard on the moderates to impeach -- so hard that some of the Republicans' declared opponents of impeachment are now equivocating.

The seven Republicans who have expressed misgivings about impeachment are under heavy pressure to join their party's support for impeachment. Aides to undecided moderates are now strongly advising them to keep their mouths shut until they have to cast their votes.

When the conservative newspaper Human Events singled out Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana last month as a wavering Republican vote, an aide said, Tauzin's offices were deluged by 4,000 seething phone calls and letters over two weeks. Since then, Tauzin has remained studiously on the fence and assiduously silent.

Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois was once one of the most outspoken opponents of impeachment. This week, he issued a statement expressing "great concern that if the president is impeached by the House, there will follow no negative consequences when, after a long Senate trial, he is not convicted."

But Porter stated he has "never ruled out voting for impeachment" and then declared he would make no further comment until the House impeachment vote.

Moderate Republicans pledged to follow this week's hearings closely. But some had other pressing matters. Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa watched this week when he could, but he also had a pork price crisis in his home state to worry about and a speech to draft on Internet banking.

Forbes was tied up all day in GOP leadership meetings Tuesday and yesterday, an aide said.

Gilman did not watch, saying he considers himself a member of a grand jury and will make his decision based upon what the Judiciary Committee concludes.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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