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THE HOUSE DEBATE

State Delegation Follows Lines Drawn in House

October 09, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On a national stage that was filled with Californians, the ones who had the most at stake in Thursday's crucial vote were the ones never heard from in the House's historic impeachment debate: Democrats in tight House races that might be won or lost because of loyalty to a troubled president.

They were the lawmakers with something to lose politically: Democrats like Calvin Dooley of Visalia and Ellen O. Tauscher of Pleasanton, each from districts where voters could tilt Republican with a whisper of incentive.

"He could have made it a lot easier for Democrats in difficult districts to cast this vote," Dooley said, complaining that President Clinton had failed to make clear that he did not expect members of his party to try to block a proceeding they could not stop.

In the end, only two of California's 29 House Democrats defected--Rep. Gary A. Condit of Ceres, a leader among independent-minded Democrats, and Tauscher, battling a Republican rival back home who has made the Clinton scandal a cornerstone of his campaign.

"We need to get back to work," Tauscher said, explaining her vote in an interview. "The American people want this over, and the only way to move forward is to go for this."

As ever, California's large and diverse delegation was the House writ in miniature on the question of impeachment: a sampling of loyal liberals who would defend Clinton against almost anything short of murder and angry conservatives who would hang him for a traffic ticket.

For Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), this was a day of reckoning for a president he and other conservatives believe has lied for a long time.

"He smoked marijuana at Oxford [University in England], then said he had never broken the laws of Arkansas--because he did it at Oxford," Cunningham said in an interview. "This is a president who would not be telling the truth today if DNA had not shown up on a dress."

Cunningham insisted that the vote was more painful than the one he cast to send U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf War.

"For me, this is even more difficult than Desert Storm," he said. "I've participated in wars and I know that lives are at stake, and there are lives at stake in this, too: our children and grandchildren. I want them to look back with respect and see what we have done."

But asked whether he had agonized on the eve of the vote, he replied: "No, I watched the Padres beat Atlanta last night."

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) continued in her role as one of the most fervent critics of the GOP-led push for impeachment and the evidence gathered against Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Delivering a characteristically fiery speech, Waters said of the Starr report: "The tawdry and trashy thousands of pages of hearsay, accusations, gossip and stupid telephone chatter does not meet the standard of 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' "

Thursday's was a proceeding undertaken only twice before in the history of the Congress. But as the afternoon vote neared, there was no electricity in the air and scant evidence of the weight of the matter.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), visibly uncomfortable with the task at hand as he chatted outside the House floor, stopped in mid-sentence at the sound of catcalls coming from the stately chamber. "See? It's so political. . . . This has played itself out for months. . . . We have been, if not inoculated, certainly numbed by all of this."

Well aware of this chapter of history, 10 Californians took the podium to express themselves in ways that sometimes drew on history, sometimes on personal experience.

During a long run in the rain Thursday morning, Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) considered whether to speak, then finally threw away the remarks his staff had prepared and quoted President Madison.

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) recounted the day last January when she told her children that their father had died in a skiing accident.

"And while they looked at me, it was through their eyes that they gave me the strength that I'd needed to go on and to do the right thing. I think it is now the time that we, perhaps, look at all of our children's eyes--look at their eyes for the strength that we need to go forward and to do the right thing."

*

Times staff writer Ann L. Kim contributed to this story.

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