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Loyalty to Constitution, not Clinton, Democrats say Party members in House object to GOP handling of impeachment inquiry; IMPEACHMENT OF THE PRESIDENT


WASHINGTON -- One message from the House for President Clinton on Saturday was that he was blessed with the stalwart loyalty of his fellow Democrats.

Only five Democrats broke ranks and voted for any of the articles of impeachment. Afterward, in a striking display, two bus loads of Democratic lawmakers rallied behind the president on the South Lawn of the White House.

But many Democrats did not rally around their president out of heartfelt fealty. Instead, in opposing impeachment and standing, literally, with Clinton, many were registering their disapproval of how Republicans have handled the inquiry -- as well as their belief that impeachment is not warranted. A number of House Democrats expressed that view in interviews.

"I don't think you'd find a whole lot of loyalty to Bill Clinton around here," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of upstate New York. "He's not the best Democrat any of us have seen. Most of us are scared to death of the constitutional" implications.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland's 3rd District said he, too, was "not rallying around the president."

Outraged over process

"A large number of us," he said, "are saying, 'We don't have to cross the line of personal loyalty.' There are some who are so outraged by how the president was treated, the whole process, the Starr investigation. The other half of our caucus is somewhat in bewilderment that this even elevates to an impeachable offense."

Rep. David E. Skaggs of Colorado said: "If you accumulated the credit balance on the loyalty account with all Democratic members of the House, it's in the black, but not by a lot because there's been this general sense over there that there's not a lot of loyalty shown in the other direction."

Skaggs, who is retiring, added: "We all have this running love-hate relationship with the president. On one hand, he's a charming and good leader. On the other hand, he's absolutely infuriating and alienating."

Asked whether he was rallying around the president out of loyalty, Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said: "Absolutely not. Every one here has a deep disdain for his conduct. It is deplorable. He has dishonored his office."

But, in opposing impeachment, Boucher said, "I see myself defending the public interest, the constitutional standard for impeachment."

Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, who was one of the most vociferous defenders of Clinton on the Judiciary Committee, conceded that his fervency was not borne of affection for the president.

"I'm rallying around the Constitution," he said. "I'm rallying around the American presidency. This has become far bigger than Bill Clinton."

The notion of an outpouring of devotion to Clinton may be particularly misplaced because many Democrats are bitter at the president on a number of counts, from accusations that he shut them out of numerous policy deliberations -- preferring to do business with Republicans -- to blaming him for costing them control of the House in the 1994 election.

'He is being railroaded'

"Even as recently as last fall we were pretty much shut out," Slaughter said. "The difficulty I've got in my district is people perceive that I'm protecting him. My problem is I do believe he is being railroaded."

Given the lingering tensions between Democratic lawmakers and the president, one House Democratic leadership aide said he was surprised that members of his party had stood behind the president so solidly.

"They don't like the president," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But the Republicans have done a good job at uniting us -- and driving us into his arms."

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said he believed it was easier for Republicans to be more passionate because even many Democrats who oppose impeachment feel a conflict between their anger at the Republicans and their rage at Clinton for his behavior.

"When the cause looks completely holy, you're going to give it your all," Mellman said. "If Democrats thought the president did the right thing in having this relationship -- and did nothing wrong -- it would be easier to be a 100 percenter. It's hard to summon the same level of fervency when you think that what the Republicans are doing is reprehensible, but you also think what the president did was reprehensible -- but not impeachable."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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