WASHINGTON — While much attention is focused on the two dozen or so House Republican moderates pivotal to the outcome of next week's anticipated impeachment vote, a coterie of conservative Democrats may well have provided a helping hand if President Clinton is forced to stand trial in the Senate.
It is not a large group--at most, no more than eight Democrats are viewed on Capitol Hill as potential defectors from the president's cause. But what they lack in numbers they traditionally have made up in their readiness to defy party elders or go against public opinion--whether it is voting against the Persian Gulf War or for the GOP's controversial "contract with America."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 12, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Republicans--A headline in Friday's editions of The Times mischaracterized part of the information contained in a graphic. The graphic listed 22 Republican House members who had not taken a public position on impeachment and whom Democrats hoped can be persuaded to vote against it.
Already, two such Democrats have declared their intention to vote to impeach Clinton. Like most of the maverick Democrats, they hail from the South (none of California's 29 Democratic House members are seen as possible votes for impeachment).
Leading the charge is Rep. Gene Taylor, a cherubic Mississippian whose opinion on impeachment was cemented during an August trip to Central America.
As a member of the House National Security Committee, Taylor said that he encountered an array of boastful Latin American public officials during an inspection tour in Guatemala and Costa Rica.
"They bragged about being immune from prosecution while in office--like they're better than the laws they make," Taylor said. "That kind of set the stage with me. I came home and heard the same things being said here. And I don't want to see the Latin Americanization of our politics. No one is above the law."
He's Strayed From Party Line Before
Democratic leaders have not leaned on Taylor, 45, to change his mind and are hardly surprised by his position.
In 1995, Taylor refused to vote for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) for minority leader to protest what he considered his party's insufficient commitment to a balanced budget. Five years before that, Taylor voted against entering the Gulf War after learning from Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the United States had no plans to "go to Baghdad."
A onetime salesman for a company that makes cardboard boxes, Taylor holds the Gulf Coast seat once occupied by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). He is a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of about 30 conservative Democrats who often vote with Republicans.
The other openly pro-impeachment Democrat also is a Blue Dog member: Ralph M. Hall of Texas, 75, generally considered the most conservative Democrat in Congress.
Three years ago, he voted unwaveringly for the largely conservative provisions of the House GOP's "contract with America" campaign manifesto. He has voted more often than any other Democrat against Clinton administration initiatives.
Hall, whose district was once represented by legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, declined to discuss his intentions to support impeachment. But one of his aides said that Hall, after reading independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report, "pretty much concluded from that that the president has committed perjury."
Battle Shifts to Full House
With the House Judiciary Committee on the verge of approving one or more articles of impeachment on an expected party-line vote, the battle will shift to the full House, where Republicans hold a narrow edge of 228 to 206 seats, with one Independent, who almost always votes with Democrats.
If all the Democrats and the Independent vote as a bloc, impeachment would fail if only 11 Republicans defect. But with Taylor and Hall supporting impeachment, the White House needs to pick up 13 GOP votes to prevail. Moreover, for each additional Democratic vote for impeachment, the president must gain another Republican.
Another Democrat widely reported to have declared that he will vote for impeachment is Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia. But an aide said this week that Goode, in fact, is uncommitted.
Goode, 52, also is a Blue Dog member. He represents a rural district in southwest Virginia. Hailed after his 1996 election by Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition, for his conservative positions, Goode opposes gun control, abortion and tobacco regulation. But he supports civil rights and federal aid to education.
Other Democrats whose names have surfaced as possible votes for impeachment include Reps. Pat Danner of Missouri and William O. Lipinski of Illinois, both members of the Blue Dog coalition. But their spokesmen said Thursday that they remain undecided.
That some Blue Dog Democrats plan to vote for impeachment should not be a surprise, said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist.
"Many represent rather conservative constituents and parts of the South where Republican presidential candidates run strongly and where Bill Clinton has not been very popular, at least judging by election results," Black said.