GOP can't find an out; Republicans appear determined to complete the trial, despite risks; 'They know it's bad for them'; Duty, politics at odds as the process wears on


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's impeachment trial has become the tribunal that nobody wants -- not Democrats, not Republicans, not pollsters, not politicians. And certainly not the American voters.

Yet Senate Republican leaders have found themselves stymied in their efforts to end it.

They have been squeezed by the political imperative to cut their losses, by the insistent demands of House Republican prosecutors to plow ahead, and by their own swelling desire to deny Clinton a victory celebration once he is acquitted.

For a jaded electorate used to politicians whose every move seems calibrated by public opinion, the Republicans' behavior has been as mystifying as it has been frustrating. Not even their conservative base has much appetite for the trial's continuation, Republican operatives say.

"Nothing good will happen to Republicans as long as this impeachment process is going on," said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist in Atlanta.

To Democrats, the motives of congressional Republicans are clear.

"These guys are like crack-cocaine addicts: They know it's bad for them, but they can't help it," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist and pollster. "Their hatred for Bill Clinton overrides their instincts for self-preservation."

The Republicans in Congress offer a different explanation: They have a constitutional duty, they say, to handle the impeachment process with utmost gravity and thoroughness, however unpopular their efforts.

"Most Republican senators realize the Republican Party is not exactly benefiting from this process," Ayres said. "It is only a sense of duty and obligation impelling them forward."

Constitutional process

The reality is more complex. Once House Republicans approved articles of impeachment last month, largely along party lines, they set in motion a constitutional process. But even Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the chief prosecutor, said before the House impeachment vote that he thought the Senate was not obliged to convene a trial.

"My sense was that the Senate was perfectly willing to come back Jan. 6 with a deal never to start this trial, or have a half-day of opening statements, and that would be it," said Rich Galen, director of GOPAC, which makes strategy and raises money for House Republicans.

But House prosecutors, backed by conservative activists and conservative senators, persuaded Senate leaders to give them a chance. In their opening statements, some senators concede, the prosecution team delivered arguments for conviction that were more convincing than expected.

The White House legal team followed with an equally persuasive defense, Galen conceded, successfully undermining the perjury charge even in some Republican minds and poking enough holes in the obstruction-of-justice case to give Democrats political cover for an acquittal vote.

As the debate unfolded, many Senate Republicans became convinced that Clinton had committed crimes that warranted removing him from office. Others developed an unshakable belief that they had to legitimize the House impeachment vote to save face for the dogged House prosecutors.

Indeed, Republican senators have become haunted by the image of the president holding a partisan pep rally on the White House lawn lasy month, just hours after he was impeached. They dread a repeat performance if they fail to convict him and he and his supporters claim total exoneration.

"Really, this whole trial has been about looking to avoid a scenario whereby Democrats say this whole thing has been a sham, from Judiciary Committee hearings to the Senate trial," said a House Republican leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

To avoid that outcome, the trial had to continue with witnesses. Hearing Monica Lewinsky detail her sexual relationship with the president, or White House aide Sidney Blumenthal recount the far-fetched excuses that Clinton dished up as the scandal broke, may not further the prosecution's case for conviction. But it may well dampen enthusiasm for a victory celebration at the White House.

Saving House's face

Senate Republicans also understand that they must work with their House counterparts if anything can be accomplished in the poisoned political atmosphere likely in Washington over the next two years.

"Look, it's important that we show some kind of care and affection for the House of Representatives," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican. "We have to deal with the House of Representatives all the time."

Certainly, many Republicans voted for witnesses out of a sense of constitutional duty. But there were political motivations as well, suggested Rep. James C. Greenwood. A moderate Pennsylvania Republican, Greenwood voted for impeachment, only to say days later that his vote should not be interpreted as a vote for removal. Greenwood supports a censure.

Greenwood suggested that some Republican moderates might have used last week's procedural votes to shore up conservative support, though they eventually expect to vote for acquittal. By voting against dismissing the charges and for deposing witnesses, Republicans who may ultimately support acquittal can tell their conservative base that they at least gave prosecutors a chance to make their case.

But Republicans say such indulgence has run its course. For one thing, Galen said, most Republican senators feel more allegiance to their Senate colleagues, with whom they work daily, than to House Republicans, whom they consider "like your slovenly brother-in-law showing up when you're entertaining business clients."

For another, even the right wing of the party is growing weary of the proceedings, especially since acquittal appears certain.

"I haven't detected any fundamental change in the preferred outcome [for conservatives], but I have clearly detected a sense of inevitability about the likely outcomes," Ayres said. "And that has moderated a desire to pursue every possible witness and every possible line of questioning."

'Just spinning'

Even Galen, a stalwart Republican partisan, expressed doubt that all the prosecutors believe as deeply in their case for Clinton's removal as they say they do.

"There are occasions where prosecutors really are as concerned about the crimes as they allege themselves to be," he said. "But it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Washington is spin city, and they're just spinning."

Republicans insist that they are not concerned about the 2000 elections. It is true that 19 Republican senators are up for re-election next year. Ten of them are from swing states that have voted Democratic before. And nine senators came to power in the Republican avalanche of 1994. At least a half-dozen could be at risk.

Election 2000

Nevertheless, Republican strategists are convinced that the impeachment trial will be ancient history by November 2000.

"I think candidates that run on impeachment in 2000 are in for a rude awakening," said Dave Carney, a campaign adviser to Sen. Rod Grams of Minnesota, one of the most vulnerable Republicans. "A year and a half in politics is about 18 lifetimes."

Not surprisingly, Democrats say that is absurd.

"I wouldn't underestimate the level of frustration of people with this Congress that is bent on impeaching the president," said Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a former representative who is considering a run against another endangered Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, cautioned:

"I could foresee a situation where the Republicans do remarkably well. There's a recession between now and 2000. Bush gets the nomination. He picks Colin Powell or Christie Todd Whitman as his running mate, and the Democrats are nowhere."

Gans added that Republicans will be able to distance themselves from the impeachment drive only with solid legislative achievements -- or at least with new ideas popular with the electorate. So far, he said, the ideas are not there. Ironically, the achievements can come only with the help of the man they have put on trial.

"In a perverse way, both the Republicans in Congress and President Clinton need each other," Ayres said. "The Republicans need him to help develop a record of accomplishment, and he needs them to help resurrect in some way his reputation."

Trial this week

The Senate "court of impeachment" is in recess during depositions of witnesses.

Tomorrow: Monica Lewinsky is questioned in private about her version of events covered by the articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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