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Clinton Says Vote Is a Matter of Conscience

October 08, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — On the eve of the House vote to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, the only major question left was how many Democrats would stand by him.

Today's vote is by far the most politically important of Clinton's presidency. And while congressional Democrats complained that Republicans have stacked the process against him, the president remained philosophical in public on Wednesday.

"Everybody should cast a vote of principle and conscience," Clinton said during a picture-taking session with the prime minister of Hungary.

"It's up to others to decide what happens to me, and, ultimately, it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there," he said.

Meanwhile, the president, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore continued their restrained behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Under more normal circumstances, Clinton and White House officials would have been summoning wavering representatives for Oval Office arm-twisting and sending emissaries to the Capitol to sway a crucial vote their way.

But the outcome of this vote--bitter for the president--is a foregone conclusion.

There was little Clinton could do to head off the inquiry that would authorize an open-ended investigation to determine whether he should be impeached for lying about his affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and allegedly attempting to cover it up.

The Republican plan also would authorize the House to consider the impeachment of Clinton for other alleged offenses. Those could include matters that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has been investigating for several years, along with any role Clinton might have played in Democratic Party fund-raising abuses.

Starr May Offer More Evidence

On Wednesday, Starr told leading members of the House Judiciary Committee that he could not "foreclose the possibility" that he would submit to Congress evidence of additional wrongdoing by Clinton.

"I can confirm at this time that matters continue to be under active investigation and review," he said in a letter.

Clinton and his allies were trying to keep Democrats from voting for the resolution so they could portray the decision largely as a partisan matter in which the Republican majority in Congress is not giving the Democratic president a fair hearing.

"Anywhere from 30 to 80," one Democratic operative said of his party's likely crossovers against the president.

The higher number could be reached, he said, if a few bellwether representatives vote for the impeachment inquiry early in the balloting and set off a stampede against Clinton.

As for Clinton's last-hour effort, the Democrat said, "I don't think it's playing very well" because wavering House members, many facing close reelection races in districts where support for Clinton is weak, think the president's appeal "is pretty selfish."

From within the White House and the corridors of the Capitol, the image was of a president working with determination--but little hope--as the vote neared. The House has reached such a juncture only twice before in the nation's history, most recently on Feb. 6, 1974, when it authorized its Judiciary Committee to investigate whether President Nixon should be impeached.

"You know what it's like when this building gears up to run an aggressive campaign, whether it be the Brady [gun-control] bill, whether it be NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], whether it be fast-track [trade negotiating authority]," White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters, mentioning three of the most controversial issues the Clinton White House has lobbied for in the past.

"That is not what this is," Lockhart said. "This is, whether it be staffers here or the president, reaching out and talking to members, listening to their concerns. I think of the last couple of days there's been, you know, three, four, five calls that he's generated and probably about the same amount of calls that he's returned."

"There's no arm-twisting going on," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento).

The Clintons and their allies, said a House Democratic leadership aide, were "not offering people fund-raisers or bridges. They understand that . . . would be counterproductive."

Indeed, the president's phone calls began to irk some of the recipients. One Democrat likely to vote for the inquiry told a visitor Clinton had portrayed the vote as one of conscience.

But, he said, the president also said the vote was important to him and to the country. Offering a final argument, Clinton suggested that the House member look at the opinion polls showing a large reservoir of public support for the president.

Poll Finds More Risk in Voting for Inquiry

Two Democratic pollsters, Stanley B. Greenberg and Celinda Lake, released a national survey that found party lawmakers could incur greater political risk by voting for the Republican-sponsored impeachment inquiry resolution than by voting against it.

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