WASHINGTON -- In an ominous sign for the White House, six previously undecided House Republicans jumped off the fence yesterday and declared their support for impeachment, narrowing the pool of swing votes that could save President Clinton from the ignominy of impeachment.
Reps. Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey, Zach Wamp of Tennessee, John M. Shimkus of Illinois, Charles Bass of New Hampshire, James T. Walsh of New York and Rick Hill of Montana said they would vote for at least one article of impeachment late this week. None was high on the White House list of potential swing votes. But all of them were on a list of %% about 30 publicly undeclared Republican votes.
Perhaps more troubling for the White House, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of the first and most outspoken Republican opponents of impeachment, asked for a face-to-face meeting with the president, hinting that the opinions expressed at a town hall meeting tonight in his district could sway him in favor of impeachment.
"If I had to vote today I would vote against impeachment," Shays said. But he added: "I don't have the same level of conviction I had a week ago. I'm willing to reconsider this issue, especially in light of the fact that I'm having a community meeting."
After months of titillating gossip, fractious hearings and often-tedious debate in the Judiciary Committee, the second presidential impeachment vote in the nation's history is unfolding as high drama. But as they count heads and work to stave off defections, both parties are treating this week's impeachment vote more like another divisive piece of legislation than as a constitutional crisis.
Phone calls flooded the offices of undecided Republicans yesterday, jamming switchboards. In past weeks, callers were mainly conservatives calling for Clinton's ouster. But as the reality of impeachment has set in, most undecided Republicans say the calls have been evenly split between impeachment supporters and opponents.
Republicans have sought to maintain momentum for impeachment by leaking a slow, steady list of GOP House members who have declared their support for impeachment. They have also pointed out that Clinton could end the crisis immediately by resigning.
Democrats are trying just as hard to maintain party loyalty against impeachment. They could take some solace yesterday in the announcement that one Democrat who was on record as favoring impeachment, Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia, now says he is undecided. And Democratic leaders are struggling to craft a sharply worded rebuke that can garner the support of most Democrats and moderate Republicans who favor something short of impeachment to formally express their disgust over Clinton's efforts to conceal his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
Moving toward impeachment
But with every Republican announcement, the momentum quickens toward impeachment.
"I have decided to vote for the articles of impeachment because I cannot in good conscience allow the nation's chief law enforcement officer to violate the law without consequence," LoBiondo declared yesterday.
An avalanche of announcements by House Republicans for or against impeachment are expected today, with Rep. Tom Campbell of California leading the way at a news conference.
If White House aides are to secure the dozen or more Republican votes they need to stave off impeachment, they do not have much time. House members, who are being called into a rare special session this week, will return to Washington today. House Democrats and Republicans will meet separately tomorrow behind closed doors to discuss impeachment and debate tactics. Also tomorrow, the Judiciary Committee's official impeachment report will be released.
On Thursday morning, with protesters on both sides of the issue converging on Capitol Hill, the House will begin six to eight hours of debate. With Democratic parliamentary maneuvering, debate is expected to go into the night, possibly pushing a historic series of votes on impeachment into Friday.
Democrats are seeking a way to get around the refusal of Republican leaders to let the full House vote on a resolution of censure as an alternative to impeachment. So the first vote will probably be a Democratic motion to send the impeachment articles back to the Judiciary Committee, with instructions to replace them with a motion to censure the president. Republicans will move to declare such instructions "non-germane" -- not relevant to the impeachment debate. And they expect the Republican-appointed House parliamentarian to agree.
That would leave Democrats with one option: a motion to send the impeachment articles back to the committee, saying the charges do not warrant impeachment. Undecided members could then choose between impeaching the president or letting him off with no punishment -- precisely the all-or-nothing choice that Republican leaders want to give their members.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt could introduce what is known as a privileged resolution. But Republicans plan to appeal to the parliamentarian to challenge a censure motion as not "privileged" -- that is, not related to the safety, dignity and rTC integrity of House proceedings. If Gephardt telegraphs to wavering Republicans that he plans to introduce a tough censure motion in a privileged resolution, the Republican
member controlling House debate could simply refuse to call on him to speak.
Gephardt might not be able to introduce his resolution until Republicans have squeaked through at least one article of impeachment.
"There will be no vote on censureship in the House," Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, declared yesterday.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat close to his party's leadership, all but agreed.
"There are very few procedural options open to us if the majority can keep their votes for, in effect, gagging the minority," he said yesterday. "It is the height of undemocratic process to preclude the House from considering what without much doubt would be the majority view of the citizens."
A top Democratic leadership aide conceded that the Democrats would likely fail in their maneuvering. But the aide said they might be able to stretch out the debate and inflame an electorate that remains opposed to impeachment.
A rash of new polls yesterday confirmed that public opinion has shifted little since the Lewinsky scandal broke nearly a year ago. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 67 percent of the respondents believe the president should not be impeached, down slightly from the 70 percent who opposed impeachment in November, but about the same as in October.
About 29 percent support impeachment, up from 23 percent last month, according to the Pew poll. If the House votes to impeach, 33 percent said their opinions of congressional Republicans would change for the worse. Thirteen percent said their opinions would change for the better.
In a CNN/Gallup poll, the percentage of voters favoring impeachment rose to 38 percent, from 34 percent on Oct. 12. Opposition to impeachment slipped to 59 percent from 62 percent. In that poll, opposition had been as high as 66 percent, on Nov. 15.
But Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, suggested that such polls would have little effect on the House vote this week.
"I think public opinion has been taken off the table," he said. "I hate to say that."
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, agreed.
"I have been amazed," he said. "I've talked to a large group of politicians and I've talked to friends, and there has been almost no talk about polls or the long-term [political] fallout of this vote."
Pub Date: 12/15/98