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THE HOUSE DEBATE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Vote Foreshadows Bitter Fight in a House Divided

Congress: Lopsided margin signals that impeachment battle will be highly partisan, a perilous prospect for GOP.

October 09, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Amid all the references to history, the quotations from the Founding Fathers and the solemn invocations of the occasion's gravity, one message came through most clearly in Thursday's House vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry: Any effort to remove President Clinton from office promises to be nasty, brutish and anything but short.

The unexpectedly lopsided Democratic vote in opposition to the Republican plan for an open-ended inquiry means that, if Republicans move toward impeaching Clinton, they will probably have to proceed on a virtually party-line basis--a potentially dangerous position at a time when two-thirds of the country continues to oppose the president's removal.

"If they go forward," one senior House Democratic aide said after the vote, "they will have to do it themselves."

In fact, the sharp partisan divisions in Thursday's vote show how difficult it will be for either side to back down in the weeks ahead.

Every House Republican present voted for the resolution, a result that reflects the solid support in polls for impeachment among rank-and-file Republicans. But fully 85% of House Democrats opposed the GOP plan, a result that reflects the overwhelming opposition to impeachment among both Democrats and independents in all recent national surveys.

If anything, the partisan character of the House debate and vote islikely to harden those lines of division in the country and make it more difficult for the GOP to reverse the public consensus against removing the president. In that way, even as it formally advanced the impeachment process, Thursday's vote paradoxically illuminated the difficulty of actually forcing Clinton from office.

"There's a lot of conviction out there [among the public], and this vote will only reinforce it," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, an independent polling organization. "It makes it much more difficult to change public opinion, because it is seen as a partisan issue."

Republicans had hoped that Thursday's vote would provide the inquiry with a more bipartisan cast and blunt Democratic efforts to portray it as a vendetta against the president. In the end, Republicans attracted enough Democratic votes to prevent the White House from declaring outright victory, but they gained considerably fewer than the GOP had hoped and expected.

On Thursday morning, the conservative Washington Times had predicted in a banner headline that "scores of Democrats" were likely to support the GOP resolution. Democratic critics of the president such as Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia had predicted that as many as 65 of his colleagues might vote with the GOP.

In fact, many congressional Democrats in competitive races were so uneasy about resisting the Republican proposal that they had urged Clinton to abandon his opposition and leave them free to support it. But when Clinton refused and instead called on members to vote their "consciences," calculations based on both policy and politics pushed most party members away from the GOP alternative, Democratic sources said.

Worry Over Precedent

From a policy perspective, many Democrats who had considered supporting the GOP's unrestricted investigation said that they worried about establishing a precedent that would allow Congress to engage in a blanket search for a reason to remove a president with whom it disagrees, said Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia), a leader among House moderates.

Political considerations worked in the same direction.

On the one hand, with polls showing most Americans eager to wrap up the investigation--and in fact, a narrow majority dubious of launching an impeachment inquiry at all--Democrats outside the most conservative districts felt relatively little fear of voter retribution for supporting the Democratic proposal to conclude the inquiry by year's end. "Any candidate that tries to politicize [this vote] could actually face a voter backlash," Dooley insisted.

On the other hand, Democrats felt considerable pressure from their own core supporters to oppose the Republican plan. In recent Gallup polling, more than 80% of Democrats have said that they oppose impeachment. And Democratic pollsters Stanley B. Greenberg and Celinda Lake released a survey this week contending that Democrats who supported the Republican resolution could demoralize their base and damage their prospects in the November election.

For Republicans, the result was a sobering reminder of how difficult it will be to attract Democratic support for removing the president at a time when the balance of public opinion opposes impeachment.

After the debate, analysts in both parties said that the Democratic vote for the resolution probably represented the upper limit of potential Democratic support for any ultimate vote on impeachment itself. Though not all Democrats who supported the resolution were likely to support impeachment, few, if any, of those who opposed it are realistic targets for the GOP, officials in both parties agreed.

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