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Money and careers at stake in Senate; Powerful political players applying intense pressure during impeachment trial

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Los Angeles gay activist and Democratic fund-raiser David Mixner has given Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey a firm message: Kerrey, whose dislike for the president is well known, may have a safe Senate seat in Nebraska, but in the unlikely event that he doesn't support Clinton in the impeachment battle, the senator's prospects for a presidential bid don't look good.

"Political donors, grass-roots, unions and special-interest groups have made it clear there would not be much future for someone like that in their plans," says Mixner. "This is almost kind of a civil war and [senators] are under no illusions about the impact this could have on their future."

On the other side of the impeachment battle, the Political Club for Growth is holding the feet of Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan to the fire. Abraham is expected to support the GOP, but he has angered many supporters because he has suspended his outspoken criticism of Clinton while the Senate trial is going on. His sudden silence has some members of the Political Club for Growth furious, says Lisa Shiffren Mann, the group's president.

"The club has supported him down the line, and we're disappointed in Spence. We're going to call him in and yell at him," says Shiffren Mann. "He's being a little squishy and if you can't be counted on for this, then what are you waiting for?"

For the second week in a row, senators have sat in judgment for roughly six hours a day, cut off from the clamor of interest groups, lobbyists or political allies. But away from the Senate floor, movers and shakers of all political stripes are taking the senators' pulses, bending their ears and, yes, twisting their arms.

As the examples of Kerrey and Abraham suggest, activist groups are leaving nothing to chance even in cases where it appears clear how a senator will vote.

Some of the largest and most active -- the anti-impeachment People for the American Way and the pro-impeachment Conservative Caucus -- are using rallies and phone banks and mailings to mobilize armies of citizens to make their points with senators.

Financial consequences

But political donors have special access, in well-worn back-channels, to weigh in with senators.

"If one of these senators goes the wrong way on this, then comes to Los Angeles to raise money, it's going to be very chilly," says a second Democratic fund-raiser based in Southern California. "The donor base of the Democratic Party is actively delivering that message."

Gary Bauer, the conservative activist whose Campaign for Working Families doled out $7 million in the last campaign cycle, was only slightly more guarded. In supporting several Senate candidates, "we thought they were a particular kind of people," Bauer says. If they vote to shorten the impeachment proceedings or acquit the president, he adds, "it would be terribly disappointing."

While Bauer called it inappropriate to "browbeat or politically threaten a senator," he makes sure that those whom he has supported in the past know how strongly he feels about impeachment. On every issue debated so far -- from whether to call witnesses to whether perjury is an impeachable offense -- Bauer alerts senators to his views in a flurry of faxes to Capitol Hill.

Liberal interest groups and Democratic Party faithful appear unified in their impeachment views and unabashed about expressing them. To this broad group, a vote to remove Clinton from office would be an overreaction and a repudiation of the electorate's will. While many assert that they are repelled by Clinton's behavior, few Democratic activists have wavered from this view.

"I don't make threats. I state my positions," says Portland-area real estate investor Terry Bean, an active Democratic fund-raiser. But, he adds, if a Democratic senator voted for conviction, "which I do not expect at all, I certainly would be less motivated to raise money" for him or her. "And I think they'd have a lot of trouble in a primary."

Reflecting such certainty, the Democratic National Committee is playing an active role in coordinating anti-impeachment campaigns in about a dozen states with Republican senators which voted for Clinton in the last election. Through its Democratic Business Council, the DNC is helping friendly businesses focus their message on senators whose votes are uncertain.

"We're very mindful of the electoral possibilities this whole situation creates," says Melissa Ratcliff of the DNC. "From a purely political point of view, the longer the Republicans drag this trial out, the better it is for our electoral process. As long as that's happening, we're going to get as many political points out of it as we can."

Republican dilemma

Ironically, perhaps, that political analysis is shared by some GOP members, and it has muted the Republican message. Many moderate and business-oriented Republicans are expressing concern that the GOP's legal pursuit of Clinton will hurt the party with the voters. The impeachment proceedings may be something the Republican Party needs to see through, these Republicans believe. But the quicker it can be resolved, in their view, the better.

This ambivalence is decidedly absent, however, among the Republican Party's wing of social conservatives. Adherents insist without apology that Clinton should be convicted and removed from office. And the longer the trial lasts, most believe, the more likely those outcomes become.

These may be small donors, say political analysts, but they number in the tens of thousands. They are the most vocal members of the Republican Party and probably the party's most active. And they are not shy about expressing their views.

For the Republican Party and for GOP senators sitting in judgment of Clinton, the dueling messages of these groups have created a powerful whipsaw effect.

"The base is conflicted," says one Republican Party aide to a senator facing a re-election campaign in 2000. "And we are getting equally hammered by both sides."

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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